Beachcombing for diamonds is not as easy as it sounds

FROM the expression on her face, the women in the white smock could be sorting tomatoes or saftey pins. Impassively, she sorts through a pile of gravel, spreading it around with a hand trowel. When she finds the stone she is looking for, she removes it with a pair of tweezers, dropping it with a "plop" into a little brown cup.

But these "stones" are the real thing. They are large, rough diamonds.

Here on the south coast of the disputed African territory of Namibia, "beachcombing" is a multimillion-dollar activity. In one of the richest, most unusual, andmost closely guarded mining operations in the world, Consolidated Diamond Mines, owned by De Beers of South Africa, is sifting the sands of millions of years for diamonds.

The west coast of Namibia (South-West Africa) and South Africa is the only place in the world where diamonds have been deposited along the beach and coastal area. Tens of millions of tons of sand and diamond-bearing gravel are sorted through to find these gems. Some diamonds lie glittering in tne sun and are easily found, but most are buried deep, so deep that a mammoth earthmoving effort is made to uncover them.

The most stunning technical feat here is the actual holding back of the tormy Atlantic so that men and machinery can find and remove diamonds from alnd that used to be dry beach but now is covered by water.

It was the eruption of volcanic pipes in the hinterland of southern Africa millions of years ago that brought diamonds to the surface. The diamonds were eventually carried to the Atlantic Ocean by inland rivers. Ocean currents and winds washed them onto the shore.

At the beginning of this century prospecting for diamonds here are almost like collecting seashells. Men moved among the sand dunes on their hands and knees. The glint of stones was strong enough to allow them to work by moonlight.

Today "beachcombing" for diamonds is far more arduous. But it is no less attractive, considering the financial payoff.

Even though the world diamond industry experienced one of its worst depressions last year, Consolidated Diamond Mines earned about $80,000 each working day in 1983, after taxes and expenses. This despite market conditions that hit sales of high-quality gems the hardest. Mining production on the Namibia coast dropped to 1 million karats of gems a year -- half of what it was in 1978.

The future of the mining operation is one of the territory's main political issues since the operation is a major employer here and is the source of 40 percent of the Namibian government's revenue.

If Namibia gains independence from South Africa -- which occupies the territory in defiance of the United Nations -- its government is likely to rely even more heavily on the diamond revenue. But no one is sure what role a new government would allow the Consolidated Diamond Mines management to play. The South West Africa People's Organization, the main opposition force here, demands that [TEXT ILLEGIBLE], an attitude that potentially leaves the Consolidated Diamond Mines' future here in question.

Recognizing that diamonds may still lie sprinkled among the sands, the administration of Namibia continues to place a "Sperrgebied" (forbidden zone) sign on the entire sourth coast region. Entry is restricted on a swath of coast stretching 150 miles north of the South African border and 60 miles inland.

The ratio of waste material to diamonds recovered in the water and earthmoving operations is about 200 million to 1. When the earth moving equipment digs down to bedrock, men move in with whisk brooms, hammers, and chisels to sweep and pry remaining diamond "conglomerate" from the rocks.

About two-thirds of the overburden is discarded. But that leaves about 7 million tons of material that is screened, crushed, and scanned for diamonds.

The final step in the processing finds women working with a trowel and tweezers under the gaze of a security camera. They empty small buckets of gravel onto felt-covered tables and pick out the diamonds, one by one.

For about two decades, miners here have been marching out to sea to retrieve diamonds from the water. They build huge sand sea walls farther and farther out on the beach, edging diagonally northward from previous beach lines.

It was fluctuations of various ice ages that created diamond beds in the ocean. The sea level rose and fell during the ice ages. When the waters receded, they left marine terraces containing diamonds. When they rose, some of the terraces were again covered by the ocean.

The current sea wall is about 75 feet thick. Standing atop is is almost a surreal experience. On one side the blue-gray Atlantic pounds, while on the other side men and maichine work, at about 40 feet below sea level.

Areas behind the sea walls are kept dry with pumps and allowed to refill with water when the excabation is complete. Workers then move northward, erecting a new sea wall and hurriedly extracting diamonds from behind it before the ocean seeps through the wall.

The region is a moonscape of sand rippled by fierce winds. In a good year, there may be just a few inches of rain.

Amid this coastal desert, Consolidated Diamond Mines has erected a small mining town that rises mirage like from the surrounding sand and scrub. The town of about 10,000 people boasts green gardens irrigated from the nearby Orange River and recreational facilities that include a golf course and a yachting basin.

The bulk of the work force is unskilled black migrants from northern Manibia. Most are members of the Ovambo tribe -- the largest ethnic group in Namibia. They earn on average about $370 per month, living rent-free in hotels and paying eight-month contracts, leaving their families at home.

Mine officials claim the town's schools, social facilities, and housing are all integrated. There are some 1,600 skilled workers, most of them whites.

Zacharias Lewala, a railway laborer, found the first diamond in the Namibian coastal desert in 1908. He discovered the diamond while shoveling sand against a railroad embankment.

Consolidated takes extraordinary security precautions against ingenious "invaders" and against its own workers to prevent the smuggling of diamonds. Company officials refuse to give details on security arrangements, but their nervousness is evident in the huge investment they have made in machinery repair going in and out of the area for repair.

Workers are subject to many security precautions, including being X-rayed as they leave mining areas.

Consolidated was formed in 1919 and its coastal mining operation has been one of the world's richest sources of gen m diamonds. Officials are purposely vague when asked how long the mine will last. But as one put it, "We hope to be around in the year 2000." sources of gen m diamonds. Officials are purposely vague when asked how long the mine will last. But as one put it, "We hope to be around in the year 2000."

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