The Ethically Gray Territory of Botswana Diamonds

The Ethically Gray Territory of Botswana Diamonds

Last April, Survival International called for a boycott of Botswana diamonds, targeting  De Beers’ stores.  Yet, De Beer’s efforts in Botswana have been widely admired.   In fact, for those in the jewelry sector, Botswana diamonds have been viewed as an excellent example of beneficiation.  As an ethical jeweler and activist, what to do and who to believe comes down to values.

Diamonds are not that rare.  Most countries export their diamonds to cutting centers in India, Israel and Antwerp.  However, diamonds mined in Botswana by De Beers are polished there, providing a jobs and an overall economic boost at a more grassroots level.  DeBeers’ mines are also multiparty certified for environmental responsibility.  No wonder that Botswana government has called Survival International’s Campaign propaganda.

Much of the objection in Botswana has been focused around the actions of Graff Diamonds and the indigenous Bushmen.  De Beers sold the concession located on the Bushman’s land to Graff in May of 2007. Though the Bushmen’s perspective (I Want To Go Home) and the documentation provided by Survival International gives plenty of reason for outrage, is De Beers, perhaps, too easy a target?  

Getting To The Root Cause

What is going on in Botswana is part of a long and continual process of the jewelry industry negatively impacting indigenous culture.  It’s likely that all the lands in Africa were once commons, occupied by tribal people.  In South Africa in the 1800s, the Afrikaners offer settlers up huge parcels of land as if the tribal people did not exist.  De Beers was the name of a farm where diamonds were found.  

Today, in developed countries, such as Canada, Indigenous people have lawyers and are educated enough to protect themselves through impact benefit agreements.  The system is perfect, but complete disenfranchisement would never be tolerated. In Botswana, the courts have backed the Bushmen; but according to Survival, the government is not obeying the courts. 

This conflict between government and indigenous people is difficult to reconcile.  States create boundaries in order to buy and sell land.  Indigenous cultures often hold land in a commons linked to their identity.  The People are the land. When corporations such as De Beers work with governments, land is viewed commodity, an opportunity to make profit.  

This linearity can be shortsighted.  Continuing to treat the resources and communities on earth in a resource to cash to trash paradigm is a fool’s game.  We’re in the middle of a mass extinction, losing about 30,000 species a year.  As Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest, what’s at stake is the “entire sacred cellular basis of existence.” 

I’ve lived in Haiti two years, working as a  volunteer around the slums of Port au Prince.  In Colcutta, I observed how little people needed to live.  We are as adaptable as cockroaches.  What we’re sacrificing in the millions of small decisions every day is the quality of life that future generations will have.  

This issue in Botswana may seem far away from us, but from a macro point of view, I see the the campaign of Survival International as relevant to our survival.  We need to protect what little natural capital we have left for future generations, and hope that in the future we will have companies that consider profit in context to life giving systems.   

The tribal people existing at the fringe edge of globalization are the last holdouts to a world view which humanity ignores at its own peril.  

The Complexity of Gray

Large scale mining companies claim they are working within the laws of the government and that they are not responsible for the politics.  In Botswana is one of the most democratically functional of all African nations.  The government owns part of De Beers.  AngloGold Ashanti, named one of the worst companies in the world by Public Eye, also owns a significant part of De Beers.  But to what degree should De Beers be a target for the actions of the Botswana government in regard to the Bushmen?   

De Beers prides itself on its ethics and how it has improved it CSR over the past ten years.  Their mines are among the most responsibly run in the world.  During the recent slowdown, a number of diamond mines in Botswana were shut down, drastically impacting that countries’ economy and causing great hardship.  Yet DeBeers was also involved in the blood diamond atrocity.    

Which is more important: another diamond mine which will make a few people wealthy of the survival an ancient culture with 100,000 people?   For me, the Botswana Diamond is no longer appealing.  De Beers would gain a lot of clout if they strongly publicly advocating for the rights of the Bushmen.  But that would put them at odds with their governmental partners in Botswana.  

De Beers will always be an easy target for any NGO because they have an terrible past from a CRS point of view.   But one cannot deny that their beneficiation in Botswana is a great model.  The trouble with a boycott is that it has the potential to harm the beneficial elements of the diamond trade in Botswana.  Like many issues in ethical sourcing in the jewelry sector, we live in shades of gray.

Marc Choyt is Founding Director of Fair Jewelry Action USA,, an environmental justice and human rights organization.   He creates designer jewelry made with recycled gold, silver and fair trade gemstones; and handmade, conflict free, eco-friendly wedding rings and