Once upon a time in Siberia, two female geologists were hunting in the snowy wilderness for diamond deposits. Unable to find them, they spotted a fox whose lair lay by the roots of a fallen larch tree. Drawn to the blue glow around the earth where the fox was nesting, they discovered a kimberlite pipe, whose natural blue mineral structure is nature’s way of telling us that diamonds are very close by.
Believe it or not this isn’t a fairy tale. These events really happened in 1955, leading to the discovery of the Mirny diamond deposit, which in turn gave birth to the diamond industry of Yakutia. And even more importantly, for the next sixty years of development, this vast region saw the creation of cities that rose from nothing; among them was the “diamond capital” of Mirny, a place with hospitals, schools and a conservation park spanning more than 79,000 acres (that’s equivalent to 32 sports stadiums!). Funded by Alrosa to protect nature, this park, called the Living Diamonds of Yakutia, has become a haven for tusk oxen, reindeers, bears, wild Yakut horses and wild foxes—some of which could have descended from their kimberlite-dwelling ancestors.
“I believe that the park not only preserves animals and our wonderful pristine nature, but shows our children that this treasure is unique, fragile and needs to be cared for,” says Sergey Simonov, Director of the Living Diamonds of Yakutia Wildlife Sanctuary. The park attracts up to 5,000 visitors per year including young families from the local area as well as students and researchers who can learn more about biology and the environment.
As well as sharing a message of respect and love for nature, the park has had tangible impacts on the local wildlife. In 2006, twenty bison were shipped from Canada to the park to help restore the population of these creatures in the area. Due to its success, a further thirty were shipped in 2011; today there are around 200 bison in nature living both in the park and beyond the sanctuary’s boundaries.
“The park is free from poaching and hunting, where animals feel safe, and the offspring, which they bring every year, prove it. We work to secure and augment the population of animals as well as nurse wounded and abandoned ones,” says Simonov. In 2011, a particularly devastating series of wildfires left many animals in peril. The park was able to come to the aid of those that were injured or had become separated from their mothers, including a two-month-old bear cub who they named Umka (“Smart”), and ensure their survival.
The Living Diamonds of Yakutia is testament to the fact that for the world’s major diamond producers, planning to open a mine is about much more than just extracting diamonds, it’s about sustainable development and environmental stewardship.
This has led to more than 643,000 acres of wilderness around the globe that is protected by seven natural diamond companies: ALROSA, Petra Diamond, De Beers Group, RZM Murowa, Arctic Canadian Diamond Company, Rio Tinto and Lucara Diamond.
Before a proposal to open a diamond mine is even put forward, rigorous research and planning is undertaken; every step of the way is subject to strict requirements from local authorities and communities.
At De Beers Group, there is a science that drives this planning with lessons learned over time, determined by the wider physical, biophysical, social and economic contexts within which each diamond mine is based. Planning begins by engaging key stakeholders of the land, working with local communities to prepare for closure and for land use post-closure; this is part of a ‘Building Forever’ commitment created by De Beers to ensure a lasting positive impact, one which endures long after they discover their last diamond, by upholding ethical practices across the industry and putting nature and communities first.
Ursula Witbooi, Environmental Manager at Namdeb Holdings, a 50/50 joint venture between De Beers Group and the Government of Namibia, explains, “We try and create value above what is required in nature.”
Bringing together mining personnel, environmentalists, scientists and young students from a range of academic and research organizations, Witbooi and her multi-disciplinary team survey the land to create a baseline of the condition it needs to be returned to, a process that takes several years.
Of course, this process may also throw up some challenges. On one occasion, the team discovered the presence of Juttadinteria albata, a plant included on the IUCN red list as a vulnerable species. These plants were protected, with seedlings and top soil collected and a nursery was set up to grow plants for the rehabilitation of the area upon closure. As a result, this plant and others will be able to thrive once the mine is closed. “It’s about developing a blueprint or recipe to reestablish plants of conservation importance back into the environment,” Witbooi says.
Beyond the immediate impact on the area, this work has also contributed to scientific papers and has provided a framework for how to ensure the survival of wildlife near mining sites in future. Environmental work continues after mines are closed too, as the land is monitored until such time that the environmental standards have been met.
Despite the hard work, Witbooi says the reward is seeing former sites returned to their natural glory. “I can recall when I was standing on a beach near the Pocket Beaches mining project that took place along the Namibian coastline, and I wondered ‘are we really going to impact this beautiful place?!’ But then because we’ve done the due diligence on the rehabilitation, when you visit the place today, and you stand on that beach, there is no way that you would know there had ever been a mine there.”
Over 10,000 kilometers away from Witbooi’s work in Namibia, De Beers Group is also carrying out work in the icy landscapes of Canada, an entirely different climate with its own unique requirements. The Victor Diamond Mine in northern Ontario, which is now in its closure phase, is located on the traditional land of the Attawapiskat First Nation.
Over its lifetime, more than CAD $680 million was spent with Indigenous and Northern Ontario businesses to provide a variety of goods and services to the mine. At peak operations, about one hundred of Victor mine’s five hundred employees were from local indigenous communities and Attawapiskat First Nation-owned catering company, ACLP has continued to provide camp catering and housekeeping services into closure.
As Victor prepared to enter closure, De Beers Group did extensive work to assist its workforce as it transitioned to new jobs, introducing job search skills workshops and career fairs at the mine and a severance package that far exceeded legislated standards. By the time the mine closed, the majority of the workforce had already found new employment.
Indigenous communities also played a key role in the rehabilitation studies from the start, which looked at many factors including caribou herd migration, fish populations, indigenous plant life and air and water monitoring to understand how the site could be returned to its original land use function of hunting and trapping. “Revegetation involves both ecological and social considerations, particularly to sustain the economic, cultural, and spiritual land use of stakeholders,” explains James Alexander, Reclamation Superintendent at Victor Mine.
Between 2014 and the mine’s closure, annual seed collection programs—one at the mine site and the other through an educational program with local youth in the nearby community—were run to ensure the right vegetation would be replanted on the land.. The program was so successful that progressive reclamation work started immediately on areas no longer in use. By the time of the mine’s full closure, 300 out of the 850 hectares, which made up the site’s footprint, had already been rehabilitated. To date 1.2 million indigenous trees and plants, carefully selected for their ability to withstand the long, cold winters, short growing seasons and soil conditions, have been planted at the mine.
Similar projects are taking place across the world thanks to partnerships between conservationists and mining operators. In South Africa and Tanzania, over half of the land owned and used by mining operator Petra is dedicated conservation space. In Canada, Arctic Canadian Diamond Company has been working in partnership with the indigenous Inuit there to help them preserve endangered caribou. Elsewhere in Canada, Rio Tinto has pioneered the use of wind turbines in the area to power its underground mines in Diavik with renewable energy, and hopes to donate them for local use after closure; in Russia, Alrosa sources more than 85 percent of its electricity needs from renewable hydropower generation.
When you buy a diamond, you know it has an incredible history. But, through years of researching, planning and engaging with local communities, the natural diamond world is ensuring it supports a positive future for communities and nature, too.