Twelve miles off Namibia’s arid southern coastline, 150 metres below rolling ocean waves, diamond miners are hard at work securing a future for the practice of romancing by stone.
With the precious gems expected to run out on land in as little as 15 years, diamond company De Beers is building up a naval fleets to protect its interests.
Namdeb, De Beers’ 50:50 operation with the Namibian government, estimates that 95 per cent of its diamonds will in future come from the sea bed off Africa’s southwest coast and the marine gems are already the fetching the highest prices from all of its seven mines.
Five specially-adapted ships fitted with giant tractors and drills between them mine more than one million carats a year from rich alluvial deposits scattered out to sea by the mighty Orange River since dinosaurs roamed the earth.
“Marine diamonds are our future,” said Paulus Shituna, acting CEO of Namdeb’s trading arm. “Ten years ago it was 30 per cent marine and 70 per cent land but now it’s flipped on its head.”
The UK is also in on the act, with private firm UK Seabed Resources securing licenses to explore an area twice the size of Wales off the coast of Hawaii with US defence giant Lockheed Martin, after former prime minister David Cameron said he wanted to be at the forefront of a seabed mining industry, which he claimed could be worth up to £40bn to the UK over the next 30 years.
Andrew Bloodworth, director for minerals and waste at the British Geological Survey, said the potential prizes, and environmental pitfalls, of opening the new frontier were considerable.
“We have known about these deposits for 30 or 40 years but it’s only relatively recently that you have had this massive increase in demand, and the technology has been available, that people start looking in more difficult areas,” he said.
“There has been quite a scramble to take out these exploration licenses, and some countries have taken the view that they want a chunk of it. The prize is potentially quite huge.”
A 20-minute helicopter ride from the desert town of Oranjemund, swaying on broad, undulating waves, the 21-tonne Mafuta clings to four anchors while underneath it a giant orange tractor on a long leash scours the seabed for gems.
Nicknamed “The Butcher”, the machine carves a 21m swathe through the seabed using a windscreen-wiping arm, sucking 60 tonnes of sediment each hour up to the ship through a giant hosepipe.
The crawler’s pilot, Clyde Lotters, listens to R Kelly while piloting the tractor remotely using a series of cameras, radar and maps from the comfort of a Starship Enterprise-style leather seat. “It’s a real sucker machine,” he drawled. “It’s the best vacuum cleaner a lady can get.”
Onboard, the sediment is washed and sifted into increasingly smaller stones using a series of vibrating racks then rotating drums that crush rocks and shells. What is no longer needed is then spat back into the water, leaving a foamy plume up to 100m long, while the diamond-bearing gravel enters the “red zone”, the most secure part of the ship.
Operations are covered by a level of security that would made US presidential bodyguards blush. Staff have been banned from wearing dreadlocks because they were using them to smuggle stones while the local pigeon fanciers' club on the mainland was closed over suspicions they were being used to carry contraband back from sea.
No human hands touch the diamonds as they rumble through the ships before being spat into sealed and barcoded tin cans, loaded into Bond-style metal briefcases and escorted, three times a week, by the ship's captain, chief security officer and one other seaman selected at random onto a helicopter which flies them to vaults at Windhoek airport.
De Beers has so far only covered only three per cent of its 3,700 miles squared concession area at sea and expects to be there for another 50 years, while its land-based operation is reshaping the coastline through mining the sandy shore and surf line.
In May it signed a new, 10-year deal with the Namibian government to sort value and sell diamonds in a beneficiation deal that many African leaders are now insisting on to put paid to the days of Western corporates plundering their natural resources.
In the mining industry beneficiation or benefication is the process that improves (benefits) the economic value of the ore by removing the gangue minerals, which results in a higher grade product (concentrate) and a waste stream (tailings).
As a result of the deal, Namdeb is now Namibia’s largest taxpayer and the country’s biggest foreign exchange generator, contributing more than a fifth of the country’s foreign earnings.
More and more firms are expected to follow in their wake, as a multitude of minerals needed for technology including mobile phones and hybrid cars dry up on land and miners cast around for new frontiers to furrow.
Experts have warned of a new “land grab”, as corporates but also national governments buy up tracts of undersea land for exploration.
Concern for the environment
Meanwhile environmentalists have warned of the potential harm such widespread exploitation could do to fragile marine ecosystems, which will increasingly provide humankind’s food stocks but remain largely unmapped to date.
De Beers technology has been cited - and its parent company AngloAmerican has taken a share in – in a controversial plan by Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals to mine a site 20 miles off the Papua New Guinea coast for copper, zinc and gold deposits thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A United Nations agency based in Jamaica, the International Seabed Authority, has sprung up to police the carving up of the sea floor in non-territorial waters, regulate potential environmental repercussions and ensure that the profits are shared out fairly.
It has already granted 26 15-year contracts, 13 of them in the past three years, to companies and governments including the Russians, Chinese, South Koreans and French to search for valuable minerals in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
The scramble has alarmed environmentalists, who warn that digging up the seabed, and dumping sediment back in the water column, could devastate unique marine environments, suffocate organisms and compromise fish stocks.
The World Wildlife Fund warned that governments were not prepared to regulate a new extractive industry operating in an ocean already degraded by overfishing, industrial and consumer waste and climate change.
Michael Lodge, the British incoming secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority, said safeguarding the environment would be one of its biggest challenges.
“It's also true we don't know enough about the impact on biodiversity and the impact on marine life once the mining takes place,” he said in a recent interview.
Plans by phosphate miners to exploit Namibia’s northern coastal waters, using similar techniques to diamond mining, have caused howls of outrage from local groups.
Debmarine, , Namdeb’s offshore arm, boasts of upholding stringent standards and consulting independent experts to ensure it causes as little harm as possible, but conceded last week that even after 15 years the seabed it mined took up to 15 years to recover.
“We are only influencing about 200 metres around the area we mine, a small area and this is not a fish breeding ground,” said Jan Nel, head of operations for Debmarine. “It’s a minor impact compared to jobs created and what it does for the country. But you can’t get away from it, it does have an environmental impact.”
Professor Charles Griffiths, a marine biologist from the University of Cape’s Department of Biological Sciences who has monitored Demarine’s operations over a number of years, said on a small scale, the harm to the ocean was negligible.
“They are clearly trashing areas and killing a whole load of animals but I don’t think it’s a threat to that ecosystem because it’s thousands of times larger than the area that’s being impacted,” he said.
“If we get to a point where there were mining vessels at every kilometre then we would have to think again but at the moment, it’s a moderate impact compared with other industries.”
By Aislinn Laing