Elizly Steyn on the deck photo by Simon Barber

, Brand South Africa Blog

[South Africa Blogging Tour 2008] On Wednesday, we flew to this amazing diamond mining ship 10 miles off the Northern Cape coast of South Africa. Elizly Steyn, the metallurgist, one of the 3 women on board, gave us a tour of this huge “gadget” that costed 1.1 billion rands ($110 million) to De Beers.

Gravel filtering process, photo By Simon Barber

, Brand South Africa Blog

After a complex six steps process that separates them from shells and clay, the diamonds end up in cans without having been touched by a single human.

Data imaging, monitors in the crawler control room, photo by Simon Barber

, Brand South Africa Blog

Prior to start mining an area, an AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) explores the sea bed 15 meters by 15 meters, collects the data and generates a 3D image of the underground, so diamond trails are detected.

Click on the photo to watch the Crawler Launch gallery
Photo: the crawler launch in front of the ship, photo by Elizly Steyn, De Beers

The mining is operated by a giant crawler in front of the ship, the process is controlled by the metallurgist and the crawler team, using the data and the imaging generated from the exploration. The crawler is composed of a winch, a boom and a nozzle that mines 120 meters below the surface and scrape the floor 1 to 12 meters deep (avg 5 m).

Four anchors maintain the ship’s stability, on average 400 tons of gravels and 10 000 cubic meters of water are processed per hour to produce an average of 57 carats of diamonds. No chemicals are involved, everything except the precious gems is spitted back to the ocean, and the AUV monitors the ocean floor after the operation to analyze the impact on the environment. According to the crew, fishes are rarely caught in the machinery because they are afraid of the noise. The ship name is Peace in Africa, 65 people stay on board simultaneously, and each crew member works for 28 days and takes a 28 days break afterwards.

De Beers and the diamond history (short version)

Tom Tweedy from DeBeers presented us a short history of diamond mining: in South Africa, diamonds were formed deep underground about 2.2 billions years ago and they were carried to the surface by volcanic eruption through magma conduits known as “diamond pipes” around 500 million years ago. Only one out of hundred volcanic pipes contains diamonds and no new diamond mine has been found since 1992. That is why in 2007, De Beers invested in Peace in Africa to mine alluvial diamonds from the ocean.

The first South African alluvial diamond was discovered by a railway worker in 1908 in Namibia, near the Orange River, and in 1966, the Marine Diamond Corporation was created by Texan Sam Collins to recover diamonds from the ocean by the Orange River mouth (close to the area where the ship is now). De Beers bought Collins’ company but did not really engage in marine mining until 1983.

According to Tom Tweedy, De Beers is now a more transparent company that does not try to control the world diamond production and prices any more. It also complies with the UN resolutions regarding “conflict diamonds” also known as “blood diamonds”. In the annual report, there is a full spread about De Beers’ compliance with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) established by the UN since January 2003: “The KPCS is a joint government, diamond industry and NGO initiative that imposes requirements on participants to certify that international shipments are free from conflict diamonds.” Read more about the history of the Kimberley process on this article from the Time.Some people have a different opinion about this topic and do not believe that there is an effective process to ensure that blood diamonds do not end on the market. Read here and here.

From what I have seen on the ship, it seems that the crew members had normal working conditions, 50% of the crew come from the area, so a lot of local jobs depend on the diamond industry. I have not had the time to research the topic for long, I am providing links about the controversy, but I do not think that everything is entirely bad. During our conversation with Tom Tweedy, he mentioned that India is now a world leader for diamond cutting due to its high quality and low prices. According to one of the site linked above, it is slave labor; but in my opinion, it is not De Beers’ fault.

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