JWANENG, Botswana - The world's
most munificent diamond mine is a yawning canyon gouged out of the
Kalahari desert, nearly two miles long, a mile across and 850 feet deep -
almost as deep as One Liberty Place is tall.
The Jwaneng mine excavates about 38 million tons of ore and waste from the
pit each year, filling several hundred thousand enormous trucks the size
of two-story houses.
Out of all that comes a mere two tons of diamonds, enough to fill a few
"If you look at it from a rational point of view, it's totally
irrational," said Jeremy Taylor, Jwaneng's mining manager, as he
stood atop a mountain of discarded mine tailings visible 15 miles away on
the featureless landscape. Irrational in terms of scale, perhaps, but not
in terms of Botswana's economic health. One-third of all gem-quality
diamonds in the world come from this south African nation, and half of
those come from Jwaneng, "the place of small stones."
Debswana, a partnership between the Botswana government and diamond giant
De Beers, is responsible for a third of the country's total economic
output. Debswana's three mines generate half the government's tax revenue
and three-quarters of its foreign exchange from annual sales of $2
With so much riding on diamonds, government officials here are
understandably nervous about a worldwide campaign by human rights
activists to link illicit diamond production to civil wars in Angola,
Sierra Leone and Congo.
Botswana is worried that its legitimate sales might sink, tarnished by the
effort to stigmatize all stones as so-called "conflict" or
"As soon as you come into Botswana, the word 'conflict' should be
thrown out," said Linah Mohohlo, the governor of the Bank of
Diamond-mining has transformed this dusty country of cattle ranches and
game parks into one of Africa's most prosperous nations.
Since the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland got its independence
in 1966 - a year before diamonds were discovered here - diamond revenue
has built modern networks of good roads, free schools and free health
care. Gems have financed modern banking and telephone systems.
"In this country, diamonds are a boy's and a girl's best
friends," said Boyce Sebetela, assistant finance minister. "Our
diamonds have taken us from nothing."
Thus Botswana's leading role in the drive to create a program that will
certify the origin of stones and prevent the use of gems to fund African
Last month participants in the effort - including diamond industry
representatives and human rights groups - agreed on a process requiring
that every stone come with documentation of its origin and legitimacy.
The plan still must be approved by more than 30 countries and the World
Trade Organization, but Botswana officials say they are confident they
will weather the crisis over "conflict" diamonds.
It is perhaps evidence of diamonds' enduring popularity that gem sales
were more affected by the U.S. economic downturn than by the effort to
link them to distant civil wars.
But a new threat looms with recent reports linking operatives of Osama bin
Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network - widely presumed responsible for the
Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania - to buyers of
illicitly mined diamonds from Sierra Leone.
"If anybody associates diamonds with 9/11, we'd be dead," said
Debswana managing director Louis Nchindo. The United States accounts for
half of all diamond sales worldwide.
To offset the potential bad publicity, Debswana has hired public relations
firms to promote its image as a free-market nirvana, where responsible
management of diamond resources has spun off huge benefits for the
population of 1.5 million.
Officials cite their husbanding of the nation's precious resource when
they proudly note that Botswana stands apart from most African countries.
"It's a combination of resources and good government, a government
free of corruption," said Nchindo. "Our leaders have no material
ambition. We are a country of farmers, rural farmers. Cattle taught us
They may be patient, but Botswanan officials also are frustrated that
their efforts to attract international investors and diversify their
economy have not taken off.
Botswana suffers in part because skeptical international investors are
distracted by the troubles of its neighbors - political crises in Zimbabwe
and crime in South Africa. And Botswana's high AIDS rate has scared away
some investors, though President Festus Mogae has been praised for
confronting the problem firmly and publicly. The government has begun to
provide anti-retroviral treatments at public hospitals.
So officials here are disappointed that little attention was paid recently
when the country received investment grade bond ratings from Moody's and
Standard and Poor's - the highest ratings in Africa.
Said Mohohlo, the central bank governor, who oversees investment of the
government's $6 billion in reserves, "It seems to me you have to do
something terribly bad for the world to take notice."