By Expendito Chipasha Chipalo
I learnt with great consternation last week that some government officials from key departments on the Copperbelt queue for payment of pocket money every Friday at the offices of one foreign emerald dealer.
The departments which were singled out by my informer were the immigration department and the Zambia Police Service. The anxiety and distress that gripped me while the story was enumerated to me is difficult to explain. I was shattered, completely confused.
I have for a long time been a keen follower of our emerald scandal. Forgive me for calling it a scandal. I have very good reasons for that. Our country is struggling to eliminate poverty and God has given us emeralds among other massive natural resources which we can use to enrich our citizens, but alas, those who have been given the privilege to secure these resources don’t give a damn if a foreigner steals from us.
The emerald scandal dates back to the days of the UNIP Government under the great and patriotic founding father Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda. Emeralds were plenty. Thousands of Zambians went into the restricted emerald area, the pits were shallow and even pick and shovel were adequate to extract the precious green gem.
And then, scandalously, despite the presence of heavily armed paramilitary policemen, the area was invaded by foreigners mainly from West Africa. The foreigners understood the quality of a good stone and they picked the best to send back to their countries.
The foreigners became very rich and married a lot of Zambian women and when these men were deported by the UNIP Government they took the women and children. However, it was not too long before the women were scandalously abandoned and our country had to spend money to repatriate the women back home.
Did the UNIP Government do something wrong over the issue of emeralds at that time? In my view the UNIP government made some very serious mistakes and which successive governments have not corrected.
The first mistake was to make it an offence for any Zambians to possess emeralds. The trade was driven underground and we all know what happens when any business goes into the black market. The ignorant are exploited.
What was supposed to happen in my view is to allow any Zambian to possess emeralds and then, most importantly, provide a gemological service to grade the stones and value them so that the ignorant stone diggers get true value for their stones.
In the absence of expert advice on the true value of the green gem, the country lost a lot of money which could have impacted very positively on the lives of ordinary Zambians.
The second mistake the UNIP government made was to allow foreigners to enter the country and live among the villagers illegally. The foreigners should have been stopped at the borders before they could penetrate the restricted emerald area.
The last mistake was the failure to train more Zambians in gemology. For a country with such a massive amount of gems; this country has emeralds, garnet, amethyst, aquamarine and so on, we should have had courses in gemology at all levels.
Our country should by now have artisans trained in stone cutting and polishing, technologists and degree holders in gemology. It is dangerous to depend on foreigners in such a sensitive and delicate industry.
Of late, we have heard of scandals of workers in emerald mines getting deported in mysterious circumstances, mine owners suing each other for millions of dollars while we line up to receive crumbs as bribes to protect wrong doing by foreigners benefiting from our natural resources.
Going forward, I would like to suggest that the government puts in place a program to train Zambians in gemology at all levels, change the law to enforce Zambians shareholding in all emerald companies, create a revolving fund to help Zambian mine owners to conduct proper geological surveys of their plots and make available equipment to jump start mining in all plots that will be found to be viable.
In short, I am suggesting that the government must take a radical approach to gemstone mining and processing so that the country realizes true value from all Zambian gems.
This evergreen scandal must come to an end.
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