Clemency Burtonhill

Blood Diamond should help

How the diamond industry and Sierra Leone will be affected

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Diamonds are a guerrilla’s best friend. You may have heard that it’s ‘girls’ who share a special relationship with the little sparklers, but don’t be fooled; females have simply had a rather more sophisticated advertising campaign working for them over the years. Drug-addled soldiers, morally lobotomised mercenaries and bloodthirsty terrorists are more appreciative of the potential contained in those chalky-white carbon stones than any dewy-eyed fiancée could ever hope to be.

Since the late 1990s, thanks to relentless lobbying by organisations such as Global Witness and Amnesty International, Western fiancées have become more conscious that these expensive symbols of eternal love may not have had the most loving of journeys to their left hand. The term ‘blood diamonds’, or ‘conflict diamonds’, entered the public consciousness at the height of the devastating war in Sierra Leone, when it became increasingly apparent that diamonds were fuelling and facilitating some of Africa’s most brutal conflicts, including those in Liberia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. During these wars, diamonds â” the most compact form of wealth known to man â” were smuggled effortlessly across borders and traded for arms, cocaine, medicines, food, and anything else needed to supply a lethal bush army such as Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Moving undetected, untaxed and unrecorded, millions of dollars worth of rough stones were absorbed into world diamond markets, bought up by cartels and ‘reputable’ companies, processed in diamond centres in New York, London or Antwerp, and delivered into the windows of jewellery shops. Meanwhile, almost four million people died and millions more were displaced.

To describe this process in the past tense is to accept the diamond industry’s line that, since the signing of peace agreements in West Africa, blood diamonds are a problem of the past. An aggressive PR campaign has been fought to convince consumers that the 2003 Kimberley Process â” a self-regulating agreement between diamond-trading governments that employs a ‘system of warranties’ to prove that rough stones are conflict-free â” has seen the end of the trade in illicit diamonds. But this is patently not the case. Less than 12 weeks ago, at the annual Kimberley Process plenary meeting in Botswana, it was admitted that $23 million worth of conflict diamonds from the Ivory Coast had recently entered international markets. Although the UN Security Council renewed sanctions on Ivorian diamond exports in December 2005, such are the weaknesses in Kimberley Process government controls â” and the general laxity on rough diamond data analysis â” that many stones continue to pass undetected over its borders into Ghana. Once there, they are proudly certified ‘conflict-free’, and may now be adorning the fingers, necks and ears of ethically switched-on consumers who were assured they were buying ‘clean’ gems. Pressure on retailers to produce certificates is therefore not enough: industry and governmental pressure to tap the leaks in the Kimberley Process must be stepped up too.

Because so long as diamonds are not better controlled from mine to market, countries rich in this resource but desperately poor in every other respect will remain vulnerable to future diamond-driven conflict. Right now, in the Eastern Congo, diamond fields are still rebel-held, and violent fighting and human rights abuses continue apace; elsewhere in West Africa, diamond areas remain rife with instability and susceptible to capture by rebel groups and terrorists. The last time I was in Sierra Leone, just a few months ago, the word was that Lebanese middlemen were still on the ground devising cash-for-diamonds schemes on behalf of al-Qa’eda operatives (all evidence suggests that diamonds in no small part helped fund the attacks on America in September 2001). Blood diamonds, then, affect more people than those simply intending to purchase jewellery.

Doubtless the Kimberley accords have made their trafficking more difficult, but the fact that these stones can still flow into the legitimate market makes the release of Edward Zwick’s meticulously researched film Blood Diamond all the more timely. Set in Sierra Leone in 1999, a year in which thousands of innocent people were murdered or mutilated and at least $75 million worth of conflict diamonds hit a high street near you, it should at the very least force the issue back into the public consciousness and on to the political agenda. No doubt there will be detractors who complain that yet again Hollywood is cashing in on Africa’s problems and portraying it as a brutal, evil place (child soldiers and multiple amputations, anyone?); that the all-American superstar Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays ‘Rhodesian’ ex-mercenary Danny Archer, cannot convincingly represent the white man in Africa; that the predictable formula reduces it into a sentimental action film with a clichéd ending. There are even detractors in Sierra Leone itself, although my friends there seem most disappointed about the fact that it was not filmed locally, so the landscape does not much resemble ‘Sweet Salone’ (given the total lack of infrastructure there, mounting a multi-million-dollar production requiring lots of electricity and amenities such as roads might have been tricky). Nevertheless, the film is excellent and should be embraced, while the anti-backlash campaign ‘Raise Your Right Hand’, launched by a quaking diamond industry in response, should be deplored. The campaign works thus: if celebrities wear diamonds to a high-profile event like the Oscars, they are promised a $10,000 charitable donation â” but could a more distasteful slogan have been conceived, given the RUF’s predilection for amputating hands?

The diamond companies are in some senses right, however: a boycott would be disastrous for economies that already languish at the bottom of development indices. Botswana is customarily held up as a poster child for what diamonds can do for development, but although it is true that economic growth there has been impressive, as producers go it is unique, with its resources centred in a single location and mined on an industrial scale. Most African diamonds are alluvial, i.e., washed by rivers into a large area, and are discovered by artisanal diggers working in treacherous conditions for less than a dollar a day. In bush towns such as Koidu and Kono in Sierra Leone, alluvial diamonds have been mined since the 1930s, yielding many billions of dollars. Yet there are few paved roads, little electricity and negligible provision of basic services such as running water. There is something wrong with this picture. As the award-winning Cry Freetown director Sorious Samura, a Sierra Leonean who consulted on Blood Diamond, points out, ‘I hope people watching this movie can begin to understand the madness’; as Zwick himself adds, ‘I hope that by telling a story like this, it might prevent it from happening again.’ Here’s hoping, indeed.