A Visit To the Sperrgebiet: Namibia's Forbidden Diamond Area

Mining and Exploration
28/10/2016 10:21

In southwestern Namibia lies a vast area - now a national park - that has been off-limits to visitors for more than a century. It stretches along the Namibian coast for a distance of 200 miles starting from the South African border at Oranjemund to around 72 km north of Lüderitz. Known as Sperrgebiet, German for "Prohibited Area", the first diamonds were discovered on the beach here in 1908 when the German Empire occupied South-West Africa, and almost immediately thereafter it closed off this 10,000 square-mile tract of coastline and desert, designating it a diamond concession for the Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft (German Diamond Company), which had unrestricted access to the vast diamond deposits in the area. The Germans lost control of the territory to South Africa during World War 1, but by 1920, the diamond deposits around Lüderitz were considered depleted and the claims were sold to Ernst Oppenheimer. He founded the “Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa (CDM)”, which was later taken over by the De Beers Group. De Beers controlled the area until the 1990s when the Namibian government purchased a fifty percent stake. The Namibian government is now a 50-50 partner with De Beers, sharing the revenues from this most lucrative of all commodity operations. Peter Fuhrman tells the story in Fortune Magazine of his stay there back in 1989.

Recovered along this stretch of pristine beach and up to 10 miles out at sea, Namibia's valuable diamonds travel a peaceful pathway to market. They take a 90 million year waterborne journey, starting from a riverbank in inland South Africa and eventually wash ashore on the coastline of Namibia. "There is no more tranquil, low-tech nor more valuable mining going on anywhere in the world. Today, the Forbidden Area is probably the most unspoiled large plot of land left on the planet. The diamonds that come ashore here are particularly prized because on average, they are larger and higher-quality than those dug out of the ground. Sea currents over tens of millions of years gradually polish these rough stones to a state of unusual clarity and brilliance," writes Fuhrman. "As far as geologists can determine, beginning sometime during the Jurassic Age, the diamonds that wash up in Namibia were pushed to the surface by Kimberlite Pipes about 800 kilometers to the east, along what’s now the Orange River. The biggest, heaviest diamonds were gradually pulled down the river by currents and then eventually far out into the sea in Namibian coastal waters. The tides are now slowly but surely pushing them back on land."

Fuhrman writes: "When I visited, De Beers relied almost exclusively on men from the Ovambo tribe to do the diamond harvesting along the beach. The De Beers facility inside the Forbidden Area was identical in appearance, if not in purpose, to a high-security prison. The Ovambo workers stayed in barracks near the beach for six months at a time. When theirstay was up, they were subjected to a full manual body search as well as an x-ray search. I too had to undergo both. The security is tight for a good reason. Today, almost 10% of Namibia’s economy, estimated at $2.5 billion, comes from the Namibian government’s share of the money collected from selling sea diamonds to cutters and polishers in Tel Aviv, London and Antwerp." He tells the story of an ingenious and audacious worker that found a way around the security system: stashing away diamonds he had recovered, he would smuggle in a homing pigeon when he returned for his next six-month stay. Once back in his barrack, he took the biggest diamonds he had hidden away, put it them a small pouch around the pigeon’s neck and let the bird loose. It flew over the tall barbed wire fences and found its way back home. When he returned home to find the pigeon and the diamonds waiting for him. Apparently greed got the better of him though, and he weighed down the bird with too many diamonds so that it could barely make it over the fence. The guards tracked it down, followed it home and discovered who owned the roost. They drove back to the Forbidden Area. The worker confessed and returned to De Beers the diamonds he had kept hidden in his home.