Sustainable diamond

The world's most coveted diamonds

Beauty and integrity

Last updated: 20 November 2019


Every third summer in Canada’s Northwest Territories, when the region is briefly free of snow and ice, a group of Indigenous elders and youth gather with biologists at a small camp on the remote shores of Lac de Gras, about 200 kilometres from the Arctic Circle.

They come to sample some of the world’s purest water – and the fish that live in it. Both have sustained generations of Indigenous people and are critical to traditional lifestyles in one of the world’s most untouched and ecologically-sensitive places. 

Close to the camp, separated from the lake by a human-made dike, is the Diavik Diamond Mine, the source of some of the largest and most valuable diamonds found anywhere in the world. 

The group at the camp uses traditional knowledge – along with scientific data – from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Indigenous communities around the mine to taste and visually inspect the health of the fish and quality of the water.

“That the water is being taken care of, the fish are being taken care of – the land, that’s our main concern,” says Yellowknives Dene First Nations Zachary Sangris, who attended the most recent sampling, in 2018, with his father, Jonas. 

We all care about the land and the animals and the fish; as long as we take care of them, I’m sure Nature will take care of us.
- Yellowknives Dene First Nations Zachary Sangris

Since Diavik began production in 2003, traditional knowledge has complemented our scientists’ work to help protect the environment that sustains the local communities around the mine – not only to ensure that we are protecting the sensitive environment, but also to ensure that our operations benefit the many communities that have called this part of the world home for generations. 

The mine’s innovative Environmental Agreement, for example, was founded on community-based monitoring and, for the first time in Canada, majority Indigenous representation on the Environmental Monitoring Advisory Board. 

Kathy Mai, a biologist hired by Rio Tinto, collected data for scientific analysis during the sampling and says Indigenous fishers can provide information that visiting scientists cannot.

“They're dependent on the fish population and they've watched it for decades or centuries… Therefore the knowledge is deeper and perhaps far more significant over longer periods of time than professional knowledge … melding of the two methods of knowing, that’s what needs to happen.”

The 2018 sampling showed the quality of the water is good and the fish are healthy.

The embedding of traditional knowledge from the start at Diavik is typical of the way we operate around the world.

Rio Tinto has been mining diamonds for more than three decades, and today, produces gems that are coveted because they combine beauty with integrity. 

Lac de Gras, and the fish that live in it, has sustained generations of Indigenous people and are critical to traditional lifestyle

A demand for integrity

Diamonds hold a special place in people’s lives – they are a reminder of enduring love and commitment, beauty and strength, sacrifice and reward. And above all, a diamond is a connection to something timeless.  

And people want to feel good about wearing diamonds – these symbols of what matters most in life. That is why diamond provenance has become so much more important in recent years, resulting in moves by major retailers, including Chow Tai Fook, Tiffany, and Helzberg, to reveal more about the origins and path to market of the diamonds they sell.

“Consumers are asking far more questions than they've ever asked about where diamonds come from and the conditions under which they are mined, cut, polished and marketed,” says London-based jewellery historian and author Vivienne Becker.

Vivienne says Rio Tinto has been an industry leader in sustainability since it entered the industry in 1983 with the opening of the Argyle mine in the Kimberley, in Western Australia.

“Because diamonds were a new commodity to Rio Tinto, they were able to approach the whole industry with really fresh eyes,” she says.

“We saw it in the marketing, in responsible mining, how they collaborate with Traditional Owners and how they look after their workers. They have also led the way in supply chains, making the chain of custody really transparent.” 

Traditional knowledge meets science to protect the environment that sustains the local communities around our Diavik diamond mine

At Rio Tinto, we are proud that the way we work has set a benchmark for others in the diamond industry beyond our partnership with Indigenous groups. In the ancient land that is home to the Argyle Diamond Mine, for example, where we mine with the permission of our Traditional Owners, our mining operations tread as lightly as possible. We design and implement programmes to protect delicate environments and safeguard natural wildlife and their habitats in close collaboration with local communities. And the site is powered by clean hydropower, from the nearby Lake Argyle. 

At Diavik, we have won awards for installing a wind farm to offset our use of diesel fuel, for the design of the mine, which preserves ancient caribou migration paths and the largest grizzly bear DNA study undertaken in the Northwest Territories. 

A planned 2025 mine closure has been part of the Diavik plan and operations from the start. It includes progressive clean up as the mine operates and, when mining stops, the removal of the dike to let the waters of Lac de Gras flow over the mine. 

“Even if these mines close, I’m pretty sure there will be more mines,” says Kitikmeot Inuit Association elder Nancy Kadlun, who was part of the 2018 fish and water-sampling group.

[I hope] they would help us do the same thing as Diavik. They should learn from what Diavik did.”

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