By MICHAEL ALLEN
CAFUNFO, Angola—On paper, Angola is a poster child for the global effort to keep "blood diamonds" out of the world's jewelry stores.
International pressure helped end a vicious civil war a decade ago by strangling the ability of rebels to trade diamonds for weapons. Angola is now a leading member of the so-called Kimberley Process, an industry-wide effort to prevent commerce in rough diamonds by insurgent groups. Today, Angola is the world's fifth-largest diamond producer by value, and its gems are coveted for their size and purity.
But a visit to Angola's diamond heartland reveals that plenty of blood still spills over those precious stones. Here in the sprawling jungle of northeast Angola, a violent economy prevails in which thousands of peasant miners eke out a living searching for diamonds with shovels and sieves. Because they lack government permits, miners and their families say they are routinely beaten and shaken down for bribes by soldiers and private security guards—and, in extreme cases, killed.
This sort of violence, which has made headlines in nearby Zimbabwe, is threatening to tear the Kimberley Process apart. Diamond retailers can ill afford more bad publicity about tainted stones. But many of Africa's diamond-producing nations are wary about any effort to beef up the industry's policing of human rights.
Around Angola's mines, tales of confrontation abound. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Linda Moisés da Rosa, 55 years old, denounced the killings of her two sons, both diamond miners. In September, she said, Angolan soldiers descended on a large mine near here to chase away diggers. When some refused to leave, she said, the soldiers caved in the mine, burying alive around 45 men, including her son Pereira Eduardo Antonio, 21. "These kids were stubborn," she said, adding that the soldiers said that the killings "should serve as a lesson to anyone who wants to come dig here again."
In February, she said, her oldest son, 33-year-old Tito Eduardo, the family's sole breadwinner, got into a dispute with private security guards at another mining site. She said the guards had agreed to let local diggers sift gravel for diamonds in exchange for around $30 a day. They accused her son of failing to pay the bribe, and when he argued back, she said, "they killed him with a machete."
Military officials didn't respond to requests for comment. Angola's secretary of state for human rights, António Bento Bembe, blames his nation's long civil war for creating a climate of abuse. "I know lots of these cases happen, and I know of many other cases you haven't heard of yet," he said in an interview in Luanda, Angola's capital. "It is urgent to cultivate a culture of human rights."
The issue has plunged the Kimberley Process into the worst crisis in its brief history. Born at a time of great bloodshed on the African continent, the 75-nation Kimberley Process was initially lauded for its commitment to human rights. Rebel movements had seized control of diamond regions in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo and used the gems to finance marauding guerrilla armies. Facing a public-relations nightmare, world diamond companies agreed to buy rough stones only if they are certified by internationally recognized governments. The Kimberley Process says well over 99% of the world's rough-diamond trade is now "conflict-free."
But critics say there's a big loophole in that definition: It doesn't take into account human-rights abuses in diamond territory controlled by governments themselves. "The Kimberley Process cut the financial lifeline of rebels, but at the same time it gave legitimacy to corrupt governments that abuse their own people," says Rafael Marques, a human-rights activist who has worked extensively in northeastern Angola.
Much of the recent controversy is focused on Zimbabwe, where the group Human Rights Watch last year reported that government soldiers massacred over 200 people in a fight to control diamond fields in the east of the country, raped local women and press-ganged peasants into mining work. The Kimberley Process temporarily suspended exports from the area on the grounds that the turmoil was allowing undocumented stones to be smuggled into the world market. Last month, a monitor installed by the Kimberley Process recommended that the ban be lifted, kicking off a fierce debate. A Kimberley Process committee has been deliberating the recommendation and the issue will be taken up in a meeting of the entire group in Tel Aviv starting Monday.
Global Witness, a human-rights organization that helped conceive the Kimberley Process, called for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the group. "Thanks to the impunity and violence in Zimbabwe, blood diamonds are back on the international market," said Elly Harrowell, a Global Witness activist.
Jewelers are starting to worry that the bad publicity could spook consumers. Matthew Runci, chief executive of Jewelers of America, a trade group which represents jewelry chains from Tiffany & Co. to Zale Corp., says the Kimberley Process should either figure out a way to incorporate human-rights monitoring into its oversight of member countries or invite an outside organization to do it for them. "It's essential that the public's confidence in diamonds be maintained at a high level," he says. Once a diamond has been cut and polished, it's virtually impossible for the consumer to tell its country of origin.
Cecilia Gardner, a former New York federal prosecutor who serves as the general counsel of the World Diamond Council, says the Kimberley Process is a voluntary organization and isn't equipped to enforce human-rights compliance. "We don't have an army, we don't have a police force," she says.
In Angola, which far overshadows Zimbabwe in importance to the jewelry market, the Kimberley Process appears to have little appetite for human-rights issues. Last August, when a Kimberley Process peer-review team arrived to check the country's compliance procedures, Angolan forces were just mopping up a major operation to expel some 30,000 illegal Congolese miners from Angolan territory near here. According to a U.S. State Department report citing local media and nongovernmental organizations, military and police "arbitrarily beat and raped detainees" and forced them to march to the border without food or water. The government has denied committing abuses and says the army was merely securing the nation's borders.
A confidential Kimberley Process report on the review visit makes no mention of alleged human-rights abuses, although it criticizes Angola for failing to present a plan to better document the output of peasant mining. The group spent just two days in Lunda Norte, an area near the Congo border that has become a flashpoint for clashes between diggers and security forces. According to a draft of the internal report, the delegation intended to visit the site of a large illegal mining operation but was thwarted by "a last-minute decision to participate in a graduation ceremony for new border patrol security officers." As the team was preparing to depart, the chairman of the Kimberley Process at the time, Namibian politician Bernhard Esau, pronounced the visit a success and brushed off questions about alleged abuses of peasant miners. "The Kimberley Process is not a human-rights organization," he told reporters.
The roots of Angola's current blood-diamond problems have much to do with geology. Unlike in Botswana and South Africa, where multinational corporations use heavy machinery to extract diamonds out of deep shafts, much of Angola's diamond reserves are alluvial, meaning the stones have been washed out of the earth and scattered across the countryside. They're available to anyone with a shovel and wood-framed sieve, and are difficult for mining companies to secure. More than a million people world-wide earn a living from artisanal mining in alluvial fields, including tens of thousands in Angola alone.
Angola's artisanal miners, known in Portuguese as garimpeiros, played a pivotal role in the country's civil war, which lasted for 27 years and left at least a half-million people dead. U.S.-backed troops of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, fighting to depose a Soviet-supported socialist government, controlled much of the country's diamond territory. To fund their war effort, they enlisted peasant diggers from here as well as neighboring Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While UNITA forces committed plenty of atrocities, some people here in Cafunfo say they generally treated garimpeiros fairly. They allowed diggers to keep a percentage of the diamonds they found and established an immigration policy to bring in Congolese workers on 30-day permits, says Enoque Jeremias, a local human-rights investigator. "It was a fair system," he adds.
The war's end led to a surge in diamond production, as large mining companies dusted off old claims and launched new operations. Among the players are Odebrecht SA of Brazil, Russia's state-owned Alrosa; and a company controlled by Israeli diamond magnate Lev Leviev, all of which operate in joint ventures with the government diamond company Endiama.
But the garimpeiros were hardly prepared to put away their shovels. There's little agriculture here and almost no jobs outside of the mining sector. Plus, vast parts of the countryside haven't even been explored yet, much less mined. The peasants proved adept at finding diamond deposits that the big companies missed, and this so-called informal production continued to account for more than one-quarter of the country's diamond exports, according to the Partnership Africa Canada, an Ottawa-based nongovernmental agency that deals with mining issues.
To soak up those diamonds, Angola authorized foreign-run buying operations to be established in the bush. U.S. diamond giant Lazare Kaplan International Inc. became a fixture in the area, signing a technical agreement with the government to set up buying houses. Lazare Kaplan says it let the agreement expire in 2008, when world diamond prices collapsed, and is now winding down operations in Angola. Lazare Kaplan Chairman Maurice Tempelsman, the late-life companion of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, says the company was trying to bring development to the area and help strengthen Angola's Kimberley Process controls. "I am strongly committed to the protection of human rights," Mr. Tempelsman says, adding: "I believe in this imperfect world, involvement in trying to bring about constructive change is the best course."
Lazare Kaplan's withdrawal has left a wide-open field for other buyers, including a company controlled by Israel's Mr. Leviev, as well as a flood of newcomers from West Africa and the Middle East. Their storefronts line the muddy streets of Cafunfo, trying to outdo each other with mirror-signed bling.
For Ahmad Mouein, a Lebanese buyer who bills himself as "Boss Mouein," it's a great business opportunity despite the recession in the diamond market. "Sometimes a digger here can sell you a $500,000 stone for $5,000, $10,000," he marvels. He says the Kimberley Process hasn't succeeded in its primary mission of halting smuggling. "Kimberley or not Kimberley, my friend, for the diamond, you can do what you want."
By many accounts, the presence of these buying houses has only fanned the violence by encouraging more peasants to get into the mining business at the same time that government security forces have been tasked with stopping them.
At one such illegal mine, an hour's motorcycle ride over trails outside of Cafunfo, a Dantesque scene unfolds. Perhaps 500 young men are clambering over a vast pit dug deep into the red earth. They've been at it for a year now, and figure they have months to go until they hit a vein of gravel they believe will contain diamonds. Their tools are rudimentary—pikes and shovels—and the work is backbreaking, alleviated only by the homegrown marijuana many smoke and the small sachets of alcohol that can be had everywhere for a dollar.
They live on the site in homemade tents and work in shifts. To support themselves, they say, they make agreements with buyers, especially the West Africans, to split the take.
Caxaculo Milonga, 44, says he's on the hook with a man he knows as Boss Ibrahim from Senegal. Although Boss Ibrahim paid medical expenses when a run-in with police and soldiers sent him to the hospital, Mr. Milonga complains that the deal is unfair because he has to give Boss Ibrahim 50% of all production, then sell the rest to him at a rock-bottom price. "We work like slaves and they're cheating us," he says. "You can't argue or he'll call the police." Another garimpeiro says his sponsor at one time was a police investigator in Cafunfo, making any negotiation pointless.
Concerns about security forces are never far away. Last year, as part of the latest effort to expel Congolese diggers, the Angolan army moved into the area in force. In recent months patrols have paid a visit to the mine, harassing miners and slapping them with the flat side of their machetes, the miners say. The diggers worry that the army is just waiting until they hit gravel so they can move in and take the diamonds for themselves.
Near another illegal mining site, peasants described a similar scenario. In December, an army patrol swept through the village of Bundo in search of mining tools, says Cazanguia Andre, the 60-year-old deputy chief of the village. He says he ran into them on the way back from tilling his field, and they accused him of being a garimpeiro. They then hit him twice in the head with a rifle butt and struck him with a pole, he adds, breaking his arm. Later, after they discovered shovels at the local church, which Mr. Andre says were being used for construction, they arrested three people.
A lieutenant at a nearby temporary army encampment declined to be interviewed but said his squad hasn't committed any abuses of the local population and isn't involved in any mining activities.
Back in Bundo, four garimpeiros give a different story. They say when soldiers swept through they discovered the garimpeiros working with a water pump in a pit. The soldiers confiscated the pump. Then a negotiation ensued, says one garimpeiro, and the soldiers agreed to give back the pump in exchange for $54—as well as a split of the action. "When we hit the gravel, the soldiers will be present to get their share," he says.
Write to Michael Allen at email@example.com