To NGOs, the gems represent the repression they campaign against. But these riches could transform the country.

Four years ago thousands of Zimbabweans descended on the Marange fields in the grip of diamond fever. Marange, near the eastern border with Mozambique, was a field of dreams which did not need expensive or complicated mining equipment, you could simply pan your way to riches.

Diamonds came to mean different things to different constituencies. There was a story — perhaps apocryphal — of a newly rich posse of young dealers who, having sold their diamonds, made their way to the nightclub Stars, normally beyond their reach, and upon entrance, waved stacks of trillion-dollar bills while calling out “Tapinda, tapinda!” — “We have arrived, we have arrived!” Diamonds became closely associated with the tapinda tapinda culture of dealers who, as the expression went, “burned” their money on flashy cars and other goods.

To the government, diamonds have come to represent the fastest way out of a 10-year economic crisis. But the sale of Zimbabwe's diamonds has been blocked — until now. Last week, at the World Diamond Council in St. Petersburg, Zimbabwe received approval from the Kimberley Process to export a limited amount of its stockpiled diamonds. The Kimberly Process is a voluntary body established in 2002 to certify that diamonds entering the market are “conflict free” — a status not without controversy in Zimbabwe, where mining has been linked with allegations of severe human rights abuses.

Kimberly-approved exports are just what the country needs to jump-start its economy. And the necessity for the certification was one of the few issues that united the fractured unity government. Obert Mpofu, the Minister of Mines, a Zanu-PF appointee, and Tendai Biti, the Minister of Finance, a Movement for Democratic Change appointee, were particularly energetic in their campaign for this approval. But not all members of the government have the same aims: to some members of Zanu-PF, cut off now from access to the state coffers by Mr. Biti's reforms at the Finance Ministry, the diamonds represent an opportunity to loot again.

And to the NGO and human rights community, Zimbabwe's diamonds are drenched in blood, and represent the repression against which they have long campaigned. These groups are particularly concerned about the military presence in the Marange diamond fields, which the government justifies as necessary to prevent illegal panning and diamond smuggling. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, the Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights, the Centre for Research and Development and other NGOs produced a number of damning reports alleging abuses ranging from extra-judicial killings to displacement, as well as raising environmental concerns.

It is these competing interests that were behind the recent debates at Kimberly Process meetings. In its founding document “conflict diamonds” are described as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”.

There is no question that the military has used unnecessary violence in many instances. Particularly disturbing are reports of the shooting of illegal miners, the formation of syndicates using forced labour — including children — and of beatings and torture. So human rights organisations are right to be concerned about Marange. But these kind of abuses, outrageous and unacceptable as they are, are not unique to Zimbabwe, but can be found wherever riches are discovered around the homes of the poor, such as oil in the Niger Delta or Equatorial Guinea. As with reports from NGOs of Sierra Leone-style amputations and Darfur-like rapes during Zimbabwe's election in 2008, human rights activists are in danger of overreaching themselves. It is simply wrong to argue that Zimbabwe's diamonds come within the Kimberly definition of conflict diamonds. The NGO Africa Partnership Canada spoils its most recent and otherwise excellent report by arguing that Zimbabwe's Joint Operations Command — made up of chiefs of police, prisons, armed forces and air force — constitutes a “rebel movement seeking to destabilise the government”. Human rights organisations have expressed dismay at Zimbabwe's certification, but they should be heartened by its willingness to be part of the Kimberly Process. The scheme is entirely voluntary, and under the approval Zimbabwe will continue to be monitored.

Zimbabwe's participation in the scheme gives NGOs an opportunity to influence which would not be there had the country done as it threatened and simply sold its diamonds without Kimberly approval. The history of Zimbabwe's relationship with the Commonwealth is instructive. When Zimbabwe quit in 2003, it left the Commonwealth ineffectively mouthing speeches from the sidelines. The Kimberly Process has probably calculated that Zimbabwe was better in than out: “out” would mean no control at all, risking potentially destabilising dumping of large quantities of diamonds on the world market, while “in” would mean Kimberly could continue to send monitors there.

If the wealth from the diamonds is channelled properly, it is just what Zimbabwe needs. The diamond fields that have been discovered are so vast that it is estimated the country could produce a quarter of the word's diamond needs in a matter of years.

At the same time, it is precisely this wealth that makes the diamonds so worrisome. As Zimbabwe saw with land reform, ordinary people may eventually benefit from national resources, but only after the lion's share has gone to politicians. The crucial issue around Zimbabwe's diamond wealth is how to ensure it benefits the whole country and not just a few, because if managed well it has the potential to transform the country. There is only one thing that stops Zimbabwe achieving its potential: its politicians.

(Petina Gappah's collection of short stories about Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly, won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award.)

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