Mining for diamonds
Perhaps no aspect of our modern culture leaves us more conflicted than the positive symbolism of diamonds, in contrast to the suffering and environmental destruction those diamonds carry as their legacy.
In several African countries, such as Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the diamond trade has financed the activities of various rebel groups. In Angola, for instance, the rebel group UNITA is thought to have earned $3.7 billion (1992-1997) in the trade of what has become known as 'conflict diamonds'.
Although certification schemes have been developed to document the 'chain of custody' between producers and end users (such as the Kimberley Process), questions remain over the efficacy of measures to combat smuggling, ensure compliance, and assure monitoring and verification.
We will not belabor this point, with which most consumers are now familiar. We do think it worthwhile, however, to point out that the Kimberley Process applies only to the funding of armed conflict in certain regions. It has nothing to do with responsible practices in the mining of diamonds, providing no assurances whatsoever regarding protection of workers in the trade, or of the environment.
The Impact of Mining Diamonds
The Conflict diamond campaign has been so successful at building awareness that the diamond companies have used the campaign to cloak themselves in responsible values, trumpeting that their diamonds are 'ethical'. Whether one feels the conflict diamond campaign has been effective or not, certification says nothing to the process of bringing diamonds to market. That process is destructive to the environment and unconscionably cruel to many miners and cutters.
Classified as a mineral commodity, most diamonds are mined. This includes deposits found in river beds, having been weathered from the surrounding rock by the action of water. In fact, about 20% of the world's diamond production results from alluvial mining. Since these diamonds tend to be of exceptional value, there is added incentive to mine river beds.
It would be erroneous, however, to assume that mining of alluvial deposits is innocuous. Because these deposits have collected over a long period of time, they are buried deep under the river bed, and in strata higher up the river banks. Although a certain number of diamonds may be easily collected by locals, commercial production is achieved through mechanized mining which devastates the riverine ecosystems. After tons of riverbed is removed, the diamonds are typically handpicked from the sand and gravel by women and children.
Dry Rock Mining
Other diamonds come from underground mines, those mines being distributed worldwide, including every continent except Europe and Antarctica.
Mining of a diamond starts with the excavation of a pit into the diamond bearing vein, or pipe. In this process of open-pit mining, the ore material is removed with large hydraulic shovels. Hard rock is drilled and blasted so the broken material can be removed. When warranted, the mining goes underground with vertical shafts descending to horizontal passageways to access the vein.