An FIU Professor Says His Discovery Will Change the Diamond Trade | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


An FIU Professor Says His Discovery Will Change the Diamond Trade

In the summer of 2013, Dr. Stephen Haggerty stood in the humid Liberian jungle, frustrated at the lack of progress. The swampy ground didn't allow for heavy machinery, so diamond exploration in these parts was done the old-fashioned way. Seventy-five years old at the time, the geologist helplessly watched his team of miners smash rocks with hammers and dig dirt with shovels as they looked for evidence of kimberlite, the host mineral in which diamonds are found. Kimberlite is dark rock with a green or blue tint, and it doesn't have much use except for its relationship to the sought-after gem. But Haggerty was finding neither.

Any diamond glistening on an engagement ring was formed billions of years ago, 100 miles inside the upper mantle of the Earth.

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The white-haired geology professor from Florida International University was on assignment as the chief exploration officer for the Youssef Diamond Mining Co., a small player in the industry. The company had the mining rights to a section of the Camp Alpha area in Liberia, located on the West Coast of Africa near the border of Sierra Leone. This area was historically known to have diamonds, although not enough to convince larger companies like DeBeers to invest in mines there. Although Youssef specializes in smaller mines overlooked by the bigger companies, it was beginning to look as if it too should have overlooked this area.

"I was getting kind of desperate, but I had this lingering feeling that there had to be something else there," Haggerty, a barrel-chested professor with a scruffy white beard, recalled last month in his FIU office in Miami, a drab, windowless nook with dusty geology books lining the walls.

But then he noticed something: the Pandanus candelabrum, a large plant with palm fronds and a base made of thick, exposed roots that extend deep into the ground.

"It's a 'plant on steroids' is the best way to put it," explains Haggerty, who had seen the plant at other mines but dismissed it as just part of the endless foliage in the African jungle. Haggerty had a hunch. He cut a piece of the root to peek inside and found a curious black area throughout the root. He jammed a pry bar underneath the pandanus to uproot the plant.

"By golly, there it was!" Haggerty said.

Below the plant were rocks made of kimberlite. What if, Haggerty thought, this plant was "feeding" off the mineral?

Haggerty put his crew to work uprooting nearby pandanus plants. They found exactly what Haggerty had come to the area to find: a giant kimberlite dike about 500 meters across.

Kimberlite doesn't always yield diamonds, but diamonds are always found in kimberlite. "It's about a one in one-thousandth chance that there are diamonds in a kimberlite deposit," Haggerty says. "But wherever there are diamonds, there is kimberlite, and that's why we look for it." Finding a diamond, he says, "is equivalent not to looking for a needle in a haystack but to looking for the eye of a needle in the haystack."

He hypothesized: If pandanus plants feed off kimberlite, diamond explorers could more easily find the host mineral in the jungle by using satellites to search for pandanus, then digging for the kimberlite.

If correct, his discovery could be a game-changer in the diamond industry, making it more efficient and less costly to find the treasured gems. No longer would diamond explorers have to choose their mining sites based on scant evidence and historical rumors, but they could search for the plant, then start digging, which would save millions of dollars in exploration costs.

Despite Haggerty's enthusiasm, not everyone is convinced. Several diamond geologists doubt the effectiveness of following a plant to find kimberlite, and even the pandanus expert whom Haggerty quotes in his research says that any connection is weak.

Some diamond-industry watchdog groups warn that the pandanus "discovery" could be a ploy to attract investment for a ragtag diamond-mining company.

Yet Haggerty insists he's right. If he is, it could be a milestone in a fascinating career that has taken him everywhere from Liberian prison cells to the moon.

Any diamond glistening on an engagement ring was formed billions of years ago, 100 miles inside the upper mantle of the Earth, where temperatures hovered around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Back then, deep Earth was in a constant flux of volcanic eruptions, causing dramatic transformations to rocks and minerals as they were exposed to intense heat and pressure. Carbon could turn into diamonds during this process.  

Once the carbon was squashed and baked into gems, volcanic eruptions shot them through the Earth's layers. If the volcanic push was strong enough, gems might have traveled the 100 miles to the near-surface in three to four hours. If the push wasn't strong enough, they either got crushed and disintegrated or were left too deep to ever be found. The pathways from the core to the Earth's surface are called "pipes."

The Earth has since cooled, and temperatures in the upper mantle have fallen to between 950 and 1,600 degrees.  The volcanic eruptions of old no longer occur. Barring some amazing new technology that would allow humans access hundreds of miles below the Earth's crust (the world's deepest oil wells, by comparison, have reached only seven miles down), any diamonds remaining there will never be seen by a human eye. As such, the number of available natural diamonds is finite.

Finding a diamond is equivalent to looking for "the eye of a needle in the haystack."

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Historians say humans first discovered diamonds in India during the Fourth Century B.C.  According to diamond mega-retailer Sotheby's, Alexander the Great first came across the gems in a valley there as he trekked through around 356 B.C.: "The diamonds were guarded by poisonous snakes whose very gaze could kill a man. Alexander ordered his men to polish their shields to a mirror-like finish and turn them on the serpents so they would be killed by their own reflection. The soldiers then threw carcasses of freshly slain sheep into the valley knowing that the diamonds would adhere to the meat. Birds of prey would carry the meat out of the valley, and the diamonds could then be retrieved by the soldiers."

The ancient Roman naturalist Pliny admired their hardness, writing, "All these stones can be tested upon the anvil and they repel blows so that an iron hammer head may be split in two and even the anvil unseated." Ancient Egyptians reportedly believed that diamonds worn on four fingers of the left hand would transfer their power along the "vein of love" straight to the heart. The stones became associated with eternal love. By the 13th Century, they had become status symbols, and French King Louis IX passed a law declaring that only he could own them.

Mining had yet to be invented then, so the only diamonds available were found by panning rivers and streams. India remained the main source. Bruges, in what is now Belgium, became the world's capital of the diamond trade.

The gems were owned only by bluebloods for the next 500 years, until 1869, when vast stores of diamonds were discovered in kimberlite pipes in South Africa. This is when the famed Star of South Africa, an 83.5-carat diamond, the largest ever found, was discovered. That diamond, which today sits in London's Natural History Museum, was found by a herdsman and sold for 500 sheep, ten head of cattle, and a horse. When news of his discovery made the rounds, diggers from Europe and even gold miners from California and Alaska descended upon South Africa in hopes of getting rich.

Large investors from England came to South Africa in the late 19th Century, and when they did, mass organized mining changed everything. Mines became more sophisticated, with thousands of diggers creating giant pits. An estimated 50,000 workers descended upon the "Big Hole," a 42-acre pit in Kimberley, South Africa. These mines were controlled by "cartels" like the DeBeers group, which bought the land rights. For most of the 20th Century, DeBeers bought out its few competitors and controlled more than 90 percent of the diamond market, expanding operations throughout Africa and into India, Brazil, and Russia.

But growing demand fueled civil wars, and the rocks came to be called "blood diamonds." In the 1950s, DeBeers discovered that illicit diamond dealers were cutting into profits in Sierra Leone, enlisted a team of mercenaries, and put an end to the smuggling in that country. In 1975, Angola found itself in a civil war; one army controlled the country's oil; the other, its diamonds, raking in a reported $600 million by 1993. To this day, armies in diamond-bearing African countries trade gems for guns.

Stephen Haggerty would find himself smack in the middle of the blood-diamond problem when civil war hit Liberia in 1980.

When Dr. Klaus Keli got off his plane, he was met by a squad of police cars — all ready to escort him back to the University of New Mexico. In the geologist's briefcase: a load of rocks from the moon.

In 1969, the 842 pounds of rocks brought to Earth by astronauts from the Apollo space mission were the country's most valuable possession, since putting a man on the moon cost $25.4 billion.

Some researchers, Keli says, "handcuffed the briefcase of rocks to their wrist before they boarded the plane to go back to their laboratory. But the government made sure those rocks were protected, either way." He says that at his university, "the rocks were placed in a high-security safe with guards outside the lab."

Keli was one of several scientists chosen by NASA to study lunar rocks. Another was Stephen Haggerty.

Haggerty's path to geology had been inspired in part by his brush with racism. In 1948, when Haggerty was 10 years old, the government of his home country, South Africa, created an apartheid state, with separate systems of governance for whites and blacks. "I couldn't stand it," he says of those policies and the political upheaval he saw in the 1950s. "I got out of there and went to Canada."

At 18, Haggerty took a job as a geo­logist's assistant in a gold mine for one year. That inspired him to make a career out of his love for rocks.

"Haggerty has made a discovery that will change the face of mining in Africa."

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"The diamonds are what we look for, but as a geologist, it's not what I'm after," Haggerty insists. "It's the rocks that come up with the diamonds that are what's really interesting. These rocks are billions of years old and come from the deepest depths of the Earth. They're a window into the past and deep Earth."

He studied at the Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College of London, earning a diploma in exploration geology in 1965 and a PhD in geology in 1968. Fieldwork took him to Iceland, where he studied the magnetic properties of minerals. That work helped earn him a Carnegie Research Fellowship.

Haggerty, then 30, arrived in the United States just before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. "I couldn't believe what I had come to," Haggerty says of witnessing race riots in Washington, D.C. "I thought I had left that behind."

Haggerty was able to take his mind off this planet's social ills when he was tapped to study the moon rocks. Like Klaus and his University of New Mexico team, Haggerty and his crew in D.C. used high-powered microscopes to examine the elements. That's when Haggerty noticed something peculiar about the rock he was looking at.

"I suggested there might be a new mineral here, and the other scientists in the room said, 'Whoa, whoa — who does this new guy from England think he is?'?" the South African says with a laugh.

There were six research teams working in different places around the country, and when they all convened at NASA headquarters in Houston to report on their findings, it turned out that each team had  "discovered" the new, yet unnamed, mineral.

"Within two or three days, I was able to synthesize it," Haggerty recalls. "All six groups had recognized this mineral, but we had analyzed and extracted it."

Still, the lunar mineral was considered a group discovery, so all six lunar rock teams had to agree on a name.

After some back and forth, a name was chosen: "Armalcolite": "Arm" for astronauts Neil Armstrong, "Al" for Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and "Co" for Michael Collins.

"But when a mineral is named after somebody, you have to get their permission before it's official," says Haggerty. So letters were drawn up to the astronauts. They all agreed. But Haggerty remembers the letter from Collins coming with a little snark.

The letter from the so-called "forgotten astronaut," read: "I'm delighted to be the 'co' in the new mineral."

The name was approved by the International Mineralogical Association, getting 11 of 12 votes from geologists in various countries.

The one holdout?

"I asked [the U.S. representative] if it was the Russians who did it, because we beat them to the moon," Haggerty says. "He told me, 'I can't tell you,' but the smile on his face said it all."

After the adventure with moon rocks, Haggerty took a geology professorship at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and turned his attention toward economic geology, with consulting gigs for some of the biggest diamond companies in the world, including BP, Quinta, and DeBeers.

A geologist's job on an African diamond mine can be considered somewhat posh, as long as you don't mind extreme heat and bug bites. For a person like Haggerty, who focuses on alluvial diamonds — meaning that instead of being mined, they had trickled into rivers and streams from nearby volcanoes — the geologist's role is not the backbreaking digging but to tag along and take samples of the rocks.

Over the years, consulting jobs have taken Haggerty all over the world. He has worked on diamond-mining sites in India, Syria, Brazil, and Sierra Leone. But it was one of his first consulting trips — in Liberia — that he will never forget.

Liberia has a unique history among African nations. On February 6, 1820, the Mayflower of Liberia set sail from New York Harbor with 86 freed black slaves. The goal, dreamed up by abolitionists, was to create a new colony for those victimized by slavery in the United States. On July 26, 1847, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a young black man from Virginia, declared Liberia an independent nation. Yet the country remained indebted to U.S. interests. American companies like Firestone controlled the country's rubber resources, and the Liberian government's low revenue forced it to borrow heavily from the United States while maintaining anticommunist policies to appease the American government. A huge gap between the rich and poor developed, and instability followed, creating conditions ripe for a military coup.

On April 12, 1980, Haggerty and his crew had just left the deep bush of Africa and were headed back to the relative comfort of their hotel rooms in Liberia. They had found kimberlite, so the prospect of finding diamonds was promising. Haggerty went to bed feeling content. But he woke up at 4 a.m. to the startling sound of jackhammers outside his window.

"But I had never seen jackhammers in West Africa," Haggerty says. "It turns out it was people celebrating, running up and down the streets, partly naked, commandeering cars, palm fronds, and guns shooting everywhere."

A bloody military coup had taken place. Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, only 28, led soldiers into the executive mansion and executed President William R. Tolbert as well as several of his cabinet members.

As Doe's military junta took over the country, Haggerty and Paul Toft, his student researcher, were caught in the middle. The professor hid his valuables.

"We took the air conditioner apart and stuck our passports and traveler's checks in there," he says. "We took the showerhead off and stuffed the bags of minerals into the showerhead. The soldiers came banging against the door... They beat the shit out of me."

For the next ten days, Haggerty and Toft were not allowed to leave the hotel. They called the UMass staff but were told to sit tight. In fact, they were "assured" that everything should be fine because Doe had U.S. backing.

"But things were not fine at all," Haggerty recalls. "People were getting beat up in the streets; embassies were being broken into."

It was time to make a run for it. But first, Haggerty wanted to secure the minerals he had found. He decided he'd go to the U.S. embassy. Although he wasn't employed by the U.S. government, Haggerty still had his NASA credentials from the moon-rock studies. This, he hoped, would persuade embassy employees to take his package and somehow get it back to him in the United States. It was a long shot but the only shot he had.

When he got to the embassy, he remembers, all the Americans had fled, and there was only a skeleton staff of locals who didn't seem too concerned about Haggerty's rocks, considering the violence in the streets. But Haggerty flashed his NASA pass.

"I said they were obligated to take them because I'm being supported by NASA, which wasn't really true," Haggerty chuckles. "But they finally took them."

The next step was to get out of the country. Haggerty and Toft, a British citizen, used $50 to persuade a cabdriver to take them through the military checkpoint that blocked access to the airport. When they got there, the soldiers asked the geologists for their papers, which was a problem for Haggerty.

"I had a British passport, a NASA security card, I lived in the United States, and fortunately I had an accent that they didn't know where it came from — if they knew I was South African, that would have been it," Haggerty explains, because Liberians hated the racist country.

"What are you doing here?" a soldier asked.

"We're exploring for diamonds," Haggerty answered. "I was totally honest."

The soldiers let the student Toft through. But they didn't buy Haggerty's story.

"They actually accused me of being a CIA spy," he says.

Haggerty was whisked away to jail at the police station and thrown into a dingy, dark cell with eight other men and no toilet, he says.

Meanwhile, Toft decided to stay behind in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, to help his professor and made frantic calls for help. The UMass president at the time was Randolph "Bill" Bromery, a former Tuskegee airman, a fellow geologist, and the university's first black president. Upon hearing the plight of his imprisoned employee, Bromery, who passed away in 2013 at age 87, made a call to Sen. Edward Kennedy, Haggerty says.

Kennedy worked with British diplomats to persuade the Doe government to release Haggerty. Eventually, the Liberians conceded, and after two days in the dank Liberian jail cell, he and Toft were put on the next plane to England.

"If it wasn't for Ted Kennedy, I'm not sure I would have got out of there," Haggerty says.

On the way to the airport, they passed a truckload of rotting corpses creating a stench. Haggerty said Doe had ordered dead bodies dug up after hearing a rumor that on the inside cuffs of a few slain Tolbert supporters, there were written numbers for Swiss bank accounts where millions of dollars were stashed.

"I doubt Doe ever found what he was looking for," Haggerty says.

Soon, Haggerty was back in his cozy university office in Amherst, far from the horrors of war-torn Liberia. But a reminder about his days there came 21 months after he had fled.

"Somebody came to my office and said a package with a strange wax seal had come in for me," he recalls. "I asked if the stamp said 'Liberia.' And it did — my rocks had finally arrived!"

After that harrowing experience in Liberia, Haggerty stuck to less-conflict-stricken countries such as Brazil, India, and other parts of West Africa, where he claims to have discovered large kimberlite deposits for Youssef Diamond Mining Co. However, Haggerty is quiet about whether he has actually ever found any diamonds in these deposits. When New Times asked about his diamond finds, Haggerty did not respond. And John Bristow, one of the company's executives, says it is still in the exploration process.

As for Youssef Diamond Mining, scant information is available. The company's one notable media event happened when Ukrainian businessman Victor Brechko invested $2 million into the company and then accused it of unsatisfactory work, according to a 2013 online account in the Monrovia Inquirer. However, that account also says Roger Youssef, the Texas-based CEO of the company, accused Brechko of illegal mining and successfully petitioned the government to shut down the Ukrainian's side operations. Roger Youssef could not be reached for comment.

Haggerty's involvement with a virtually unknown company followed a successful teaching career. Since fleeing Liberia during the coup, Haggerty left an impression on students and the field of geology.

"He was one of the more intense professors," recalls Steven Shirey, who did his master's thesis in 1975 under Haggerty at the University of Massachusetts and is now an economic geologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

"There are some professors who, you can tell, just have a deeper knowledge and passion of their subject," Shirey says, "and Haggerty was one of those professors."

Haggerty has also made a permanent mark in the field of geology, having discovered five more minerals, including one he named after himself: Haggertyite, a relative of kimberlite found in Arkansas.

While Haggerty was teaching, Liberia became something of a center stage in the blood-diamond controversy. In 1989, nine years after Haggerty fled the country during Doe's coup, Charles Taylor led a resistance army to overthrow and eventually execute Doe. Taylor became president of the civil-war-torn country and was accused of funding his army in part with blood diamonds. In 2012, Taylor was convicted of war crimes for terrorism and rape and for using child soldiers. He is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison.

While Taylor was committing war crimes with diamond profits, Haggerty left UMass in 2002 to become a distinguished professor at Florida International University, waiting for a chance to return to the country he fled in 1980. After Taylor was removed from office, Haggerty got his chance in 2013 with the little-known Youssef Diamond Mining, giving the now-elderly professor another opportunity to look for kimberlite.

But that hot summer in 2013, Haggerty wasn't finding much of anything as he watched laborers dig into the ground. However, the stubborn scientist knew that diamonds had been found here before — 10 percent of the infamous blood diamonds were believed to have originated in this area during the civil-war-ravaged years between 1989 and 2003. Taylor was known to have sent miners into the area to look for diamonds he would exchange to obtain more weapons.

The diamonds from here were believed to be alluvial diamonds, and without finding a large kimberlite pipe that would give a mining company enough confidence to spend money to begin excavations, Haggerty's return to Liberia would prove to be fruitless.

And that's when Haggerty made the link between the pandanus plant and kimberlite. Excited by his find, he began researching the plant. In a paper summarizing his findings — "Discovery of Kimberlite Pipe and Recognition of a Diagnostic Botanical Indicator in NW Liberia" — published in Economic Geology, Haggerty heavily quoted Dutch botanist Henk Beentje, an expert on the pandanus plant, and came to the conclusion that the link to kimberlite was real.

It begs the question: Were diamonds found in Camp Alpha after his 2013 trip?

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However, when New Times reached out to Beentje, the now-retired Dutchman sounded skeptical.

"I feel the suggested link between kimberlite and Pandanus candelabrum is a bit light — plus potentially very harmful to the pandan," Beentje said. "When I say 'light,' I mean that the pandan is quite widespread and locally common; it occurs from Senegal to the Congo. That is about half a continent. And while I don't doubt that kimberlite and the pandan may occur together in places, I doubt very much that kimberlite is as widespread and common as the pandan is."

But Haggerty dismisses the very man he uses for a source.

"Success proves otherwise!" Haggerty wrote in an email response. "It's also clear that the dissenters have NOT read the published paper."

By phone, he continued: "With all due respect, he's a botanist — he's not a geologist. He's never been to West Africa, he knows nothing about diamonds, and it seems to me that his nose was put out of joint because I went ahead and published the paper," Haggerty responds. "The facts stand for themselves — they speak the loudest."

In April, FIU issued a news release announcing Haggerty's discovery, and the internet pounced. Articles in Science and Wired touted the amazing idea that a plant could be used to find diamonds. On the heels of this attention, Youssef Diamond Mining Co. released several news releases, and John Bristow, the chief operating officer of South African-based Incubex, a mineral investment firm connected to Youssef, boasted about the kimberlite finds in Liberia in mining magazines.

"Haggerty has made a discovery that will change the face of mining in Africa," Bristow boldly declared about his longtime colleague in an interview with New Times. "He has been doing this for 40-some years, and I have no doubt that he is correct about his findings."

But like Beentje, others have serious doubt.

"I wouldn't call it groundbreaking," says Daniel Schulze, a geologist at the University of Toronto. "It may be useful in areas where that plant grows naturally but not applicable elsewhere. Consider how important it would be if we learned that a particular species of Arctic ground squirrel only dug its burrows in kimberlite. Where could you apply that? And again, remember that not all kimberlites contain diamonds."

And Ian Smillie, a longtime anti-blood-diamond activist and chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative, a Toronto-based group that works for ethical diamond mining, says it's unlikely that Liberia even has many diamonds left. In fact, Liberia served mostly as a "diamond laundering" station for blood diamonds from Sierra Leone in the '90s and early 2000s, meaning that diamonds from the high-conflict areas were smuggled into Liberia and sold on the market as more ethical Liberian diamonds.

Smillie says he has no personal knowledge of Youssef Diamond Mining but points out that it is not unheard-of for fly-by-night mining companies to try to attract investments with exaggerated claims. "Word of a big , potential find can drive up the price of a company's stock, which is a pretty common scam."

But, he concedes, Haggerty's theory is "fascinating — it sounds pretty scientific, and the conclusion — that 'it holds enormous potential' — is not unwarranted. But I'd say they still have a long way to go with it."

Wolfgang Hofmeister, a leading geology professor and vice president for research at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, says, "There sometimes is a close relationship between plants and chemical composition of the underground soil, and some plants are known to be typical tracer plants for typical elements, such as zinc and beryllium," Hofmeister says. "But in the case of a kimberlite-rich underground, I have my doubts, because the mineral content, in my opinion, has no significant difference to some other soil stemming from different rock types."

"Oh, really?" Haggerty says, hearing of the criticism. "So where does he think diamonds form — at the surface of the Earth? The answer is no!"

Even if the plant does indicate kimberlite, Hofmeister agrees with Schulze that it would be applicable only in climates where pandanus grows. "What about kimberlites in sandy or icy areas?" he says.

Beentje worries about the effects if the pandanus plant comes to be known as a diamond locator. "If the result of Mr. Haggerty's publication is that people are going to start digging for diamonds wherever the pandan is growing, that would mean many populations of the pandan would be wiped out due to that digging," he says.

But Bristow, the investor, sides with Haggerty. "To find kimberlite in the thick jungles of places like Liberia takes backbreaking, excruciating work," he explains. "If it's possible, as Steve believes, to better locate kimberlite based on the vegetation instead of relying on word of mouth and random digging, this is a breakthrough in African diamond exploration."

Haggerty remains confident. "Already, the focus for diamonds is going away from Africa to places like Canada, which is the next great frontier in diamond exploration," he says. "But the conditions and geology of Africa means there are still a lot left. It hasn't all been mined. And [the pandanus plant] should help find them."

It begs the question: Were diamonds found in Camp Alpha after his 2013 trip?

Haggerty says Youssef Diamond Mining Co. is in the process of looking for them. Bristow says that even now, two years after the supposed discovery, the new kimberlite sites "have to be carefully sampled and evaluated by drilling, pitting, bulk sampling, and processing of these samples."

Haggerty has been unable to return to Liberia since his discovery, due to the Ebola outbreak in 2014; no insurance company will cover the now-77-year-old. But "I'm gonna get back there as soon as I can," he announces from behind his cluttered desk. "I still have some work left to do."