Hans Merket, a researcher with the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), says he didn’t go into Tanzania expecting to learn about people getting hurt and killed. His group simply wanted to measure how mines were viewed by surrounding communities.
But when they got to Mwadui, the area around the Williamson diamond mine, he kept hearing how mine security forces had taken violent action against purported trespassers on the mine area. There were reports of people being shot, stabbed, beaten, locked up, and killed.
“We really stumbled on these abuses,” he says. “We usually don’t do advocacy. It’s not our specialization.”
IPIS wrote up its findings in a 2019 report and sent it to Petra Diamonds, which owns 75% of the mine. (The government of Tanzania owns the other 25%.) Petra never responded.
“It was really strange,” says Merket. “You expect something like that from a small player but not a big player like Petra.”
But IPIS was not the only group that had noticed these serious problems.
In September 2020, U.K. law firm Leigh Day sued Petra on behalf of more than 30 Tanzanian nationals, charging a pattern of human rights abuses. Two months later, the NGO Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) issued a report that linked mine security to at least seven deaths and 41 assaults.
In May, Petra agreed to a $6 million settlement with Leigh Day, whose list of claimants had swelled to 71. That number may grow even further, as another 25 claims are being investigated.
And while the settlement included the standard “no admission of liability” from Petra, the miner’s statement went further than most in admitting that yes, things were bad.
“Petra acknowledges that past incidents have taken place that regrettably resulted in the loss of life, injury, and the mistreatment of illegal diggers,” the company said in the statement. Petra also made public an independent report on the topic.
“They basically admitted to everything we said they did,” says RAID executive director Anneke Van Woudenberg. “And in some cases, more.”
(Petra executives declined an interview but referred JCK to this page.)
In addition to giving the company a huge black eye, the episode comes at a fraught time for Petra, a debt-laden company that put itself up for sale last year but eventually opted for a restructuring. Williamson is not even a large part of Petra as a business; according to analyst Paul Zimnisky, the mine only represents 10% of production.
But what makes this episode unusual is that Petra was a constituent of FTSE4Good, a listing of publicly traded companies that are said to meet strict environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) criteria. Petra has since exited the index, but due to its financial issues, not an ESG analysis, according to communications it’s received.
When people talk about human rights abuses in the diamond industry, they usually think about conflict diamonds. But most of the recent problems have involved overzealous security taking violent action against artisanal miners. That happened in Marange, Zimbabwe. It’s happened in Angola. It was an issue for colored-stone miner Gemfields, which in January 2019 settled a lawsuit with Leigh Day, after 273 locals claimed they were abused by security at Gemfields’ Mozambique ruby deposit. Nor is this limited to gems; there have been similar issues at gold, nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium, and iron ore mines.
Critics concede that mines have the right to protect their property—just that violent or abusive measures shouldn’t be part of their toolkits.
Leigh Day solicitor Matthew Renshaw believes there will always be tension when rich companies set up operations in poor countries. A lot of the artisanal diggers are desperately poor, and freelance diamond digging is one of their few means of livelihood. Sometimes the villagers believe the miners are encroaching on land that belongs to them. The mine can disrupt their agriculture. The companies on occasion promise benefits for the local community and don’t deliver. And living near a mine can be challenging; the locals often have to deal with frequent blasts of dynamite and other noise.
In the case of Williamson, there was an added issue: Locals claimed they weren’t clear where Petra’s property ended or began. “There are places where abuses happened to villagers who were just passing by,” Merket says.
Sadly, for a brief moment, it looked like the Williamson mine might serve as an ethical showcase for the industry.
In 2005, De Beers, which had owned 75% of Williamson since 1993, decided to use the mine as a laboratory for new ways of dealing with small-scale miners. In 2006, it committed $2 million to the De Beers–Mwadui Community Diamond Partnership at the Clinton Global Initiative.
“The idea was that maybe the Williamson mine could be a model,” says Ian Smillie, the founding chair of the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI)—an industry-NGO collaboration devoted to improving the fortune of artisanal diamond diggers—and the author of several books.
“De Beers was trying to understand what makes these artisanal miners tick. So, they spent quite a bit of time with consultants and NGOs trying to understand the political economy of artisanal diamond mining around the mine.”