Diamond in the dust for local art

The answer: recycle it into the world’s biggest gallery for earthwork art. This week De Beers and acclaimed Stellenbosch artist Strijdom van der Merwe unveiled South Africa’s first major land art installation in the middle of the devastation wreaked by mining the remote Namaqualand coast west of Springbok.

The monumental artwork – 14 rows of gravel piled 2m high, neatly aligned in a 100m-diameter circle – is part of an ambitious scheme initiated by Washington-based non-profit group Conservation International (CI) to create a thriving “green economy” on the 32000ha property.”It’s a good first step,” said Sarah Frazee, director of CI’s efforts to conserve biodiversity hotspots in Southern Africa. “We hope it will ultimately end up being something quite spectacular.”The alluvial mine is the world’s biggest and in its heyday 20 years ago employed more than 3000 people. But it has suspended operations because the remaining gems are not economical for De Beers to recover. Now the ghost mine has fewer than 200 workers and De Beers, together with conservationists and the local government, is scrambling to find new uses for the property that will bring jobs and investment to the impoverished region.One of CI’s priorities is to protect the species-rich succulent Karoo habitat, but it acknowledges there is little point in trying to restore areas that have been excavated down to bedrock.Apart from the expense, the natural vegetation has a low livestock-carrying capacity that would support only a handful of families.So the dumps and quarries that are too far gone to fix would be set aside for new industries – and for land art.Van der Merwe’s structure, AM/PM Shadow Lines, took a team of half-a-dozen machine operators about a month to build.”I hope this will develop because I’m in love with land,” Van der Merwe said. “I try to create shadows. To take such a masculine, 7000-ton work and to end up with something so soft and fragile …is what makes it wonderful for me.”Part of the post-mining proposal for the site is to hold an international competition for artists to come up with ideas. Two or three works would be built every year, leading to the creation of a massive land art “park”.Another CI director, Chuck Hutchinson, described the art and the tourists it would attract as part of a bigger economic picture that included oyster farms, abalone beds, renewable energy, biofuel production and “seawater greenhouses”.These structures, suitable for coastal deserts like Namaqualand, use seawater, sunshine and wind to produce food and desalinated water.”It could be a tremendous opportunity for a company like De Beers,” Hutchinson said.”They feel pressure about job creation, so if we can get the private sector to invest in these things because they’re viable businesses, and they’re going to create jobs, it takes a lot of pressure off De Beers,” he said.De Beers has drafted its own plans for the area, which boasts two small towns, Kleinsee and Koingnaas, and extensive road, power and water infrastructure. These include converting a workers’ hostel into a prison and developing a nine-hole golf course into a golf resort.Frazee said the site’s tight security – no one can enter without a permit – would remain in place to prevent any invasion by informal diamond diggers looking for whatever gems De Beers had left behind.Discussions are under way with De Beers on the possibility of taking tour groups to admire the land art in situ. But in the meantime cameras will be installed to beam images to a website.