Cameroon’s diamond sector: small player, big challenges

In the multi-billion diamond industry, Cameroon is a tiny player. It reports an average annual production of about 2,000 carats, with a value of ca. USD 260,000. This constitutes a fraction (0,00002%) of the average global production of 135 million carats, worth USD 12,7 billion, per year. Nonetheless, Cameroon is confronted with one of the biggest challenges facing the diamond industry in recent years, namely the illegal trade in conflict diamonds from the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR).

Conflict-ridden neighbour

After a coup, in 2013, plunged the CAR into a protracted civil war, and reports of rebel groups financing their activities through control over diamond mining and trade, the country was subjected to an embargo on rough diamond exports by the Kimberley Process (KP) Certification Scheme (KPCS). This is the last and since then only embargo of this scheme, which was launched in 2003, to bar conflict diamonds – defined(notoriously narrow) as “rough diamonds used by rebel movements or their allies to undermine legitimate governments” – from entering the mainstream rough diamond trade. The embargo on the CAR did however not stop the country’s diamond production, which provides a livelihood to an estimated 100-150,000 workers and their families.

In fact, the embargo created the enabling conditions for smuggling activities, with increased involvement of armed and international criminal groups, to become the norm in CAR’s diamond trade. This development could not be stopped by the partial lifting of the embargo in 2015. Half of the CAR’s diamond production originates from eight compliant zones in the West of the country, but it is estimated that circa 300,000 carats annually, or 90% of all rough diamonds continue to be smuggled out of the country. According to reports by the UN Panel of Experts on CAR and NGOs, the main transit hub for diamonds smuggled from this conflict-ridden country is Cameroon.

Kimberley Process controls

Following the adoption of Decree No. 2011/3666/PM of November 2, 2011, on the Creation, Organisation, and Functioning of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, Cameroon was accepted as Kimberley Process participant in June 2012. This was shortly before the outbreak of civil war in the CAR. Cameroon shares a porous 729-km long border as well as its only diamond deposit with CAR. This deposit is artisanally mined on both sides of the Bombe river that separates the two countries. In light of this particularly challenging context, the imposition of the 2013 KPCS embargo on CAR, immediately put Cameroon’s internal controls to the test.

These controls are one of the minimum requirements of the KPCS, by means of which KP participants should ensure that no conflict diamonds enter shipments of rough diamonds imported into or exported from their territory. Even though the efficacy of the KPCS relies on the combined effectiveness of internal controls implemented by its 56 participants, representing 82 countries (with the EU and its 27 Member States counting as a single participant), these measures are not clearly defined or enforced by the KP.

Cameroon is unfortunately a case in point. Recent research by the Cameroonian NGO RELUFA has shown that controls fall short in monitoring production and trade from the small artisanal mines scattered across the country’s Eastern region. These controls are even less up to the daunting task to avoid infiltration by the illicit flows from CAR that dwarf Cameroon’s domestic production. One of the most important shortcomings is the limited presence of and oversight by governmental actors in diamond mining areas. In Boumba-et-Ngoko, for instance, which is one of the main diamond mining departments in Cameroon, the National Permanent Secretariat for the Kimberley Process has only 3 field agents to cover an area of over 30,000 km2. These are supposed to perform basic duties such as gathering production statistics and checking the provenance of diamonds in all artisanal diamond mines.

This reality has led to a poor enforcement of laws and regulations, leaving the sector in disordered informality.  Miners and middlemen, a number of them being refugees from CAR, despite this profession being legally reserved for Cameroonians, work clandestinely without the required licenses. Miners have not filled out production registers since 2016, the year of the last and so far only KP review visit. Such registers are the first link of the paper trail that should guarantee the Cameroonian mining origin of exports under the country’s KP system.

The substandard registration of production is a common challenge for countries with an artisanal diamond mining sector. Yet, typically, oversight improves further down the chain, where the centralization of the trade by a limited number of registered buying houses and their provincial antennae allows more effective regulation. This is not the case in Cameroon where numerous investors, who reside in Yaoundé and Douala, far away from the mining areas, are able to buy and sell diamonds partly or entirely off-books.

This under regulation forms a fertile ground for corruption of all kinds and is what renders Cameroon’s diamond trade prone to abuse by smuggling networks.

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