Prized for their beauty and toughness, diamonds have held a unique place in the human imagination since antiquity. Billions of years of pressure and heat are necessary to make a diamond. But it takes little time to trade one for a crate of rifles or a sack of machetes. Blood Diamond, Hollywood’s socially conscious romance flick on the subject starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has fueled a new wave of interest in the relationship between Africa and its diamonds.
The issue of conflict diamonds first came to light in the early 1990s as the diamond-rich but politically unstable African countries of Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire plunged into civil war. The parties to these conflicts found the easily harvested gemstones to be a rich source of funding.
Easily concealable, illicit diamonds were quickly and efficiently smuggled abroad. Willing dealers then converted them into cash, weapons, and drugs or used them to evade taxes and launder money. In 1998, The London-based NGO Global Witness launched a campaign to expose the role of diamonds in funding conflict and opened the world’s eyes to this terrible problem.
Natural diamonds are mined in two ways. Deep-shaft diamonds make their way toward the surface of the earth on currents of molten lava known as kimberlite pipes. Most of these stones settle just below ground and are accessed through expensive, capital-intensive mining operations. Modern deep-shaft mining often involves the use of advanced x-ray technology. In some cases, revolutionary groups have captured working mines and trafficked primary diamonds.
Conflict diamonds, meanwhile, are more frequently drawn from alluvial deposits of diamonds that have been carried from their initial primary deposit by geographical forces such as erosion. Often found in shallow creeks and along dry riverbeds, these stones are harvested manually, often with little more than a sieve.
The UN took note of the conflict diamond problem and in 1998 passed Security Council Resolution 1173, which prohibited all traffic in Angolan diamonds outside of an officially sanctioned Certificate of Origin scheme. But, in 2002, fear that the conflict diamonds issue would jeopardize the legitimate African diamond industry spurred to action the nations with the most at stake.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was established by a coalition of diamond-producing countries in order to prevent combatants from using diamonds to finance violence. By recognizing international standards for the certification of rough diamonds, the KPCS has reduced the number of conflict diamonds on the market.
In addition, the diamond industry has implemented a voluntary self-regulation system in the hope of easing consumer concerns about indirectly supporting violence. These measures have had an impact. While the conflict diamond trade is inherently opaque, making it difficult to reliably estimate the number of tainted stones in circulation, it is now widely accepted that gems from conflict zones make up less than one percent of the international diamond trade.
The DeBeers Group has long dominated the diamond business. The South African company mines and processes nearly half of the world’s rough diamonds. Founded in 1880 by South African magnate Cecil John Rhodes, DeBeers has traditionally used its monopoly power to keep diamond prices high. Not surprisingly, DeBeers and the World Diamond Council (WDC), which represent the global diamond industry, are eager to head off any questions that the DiCaprio film might raise regarding conflict diamonds.
In September, the WDC launched an advertising campaign designed to preempt any negative publicity. Full-page ads in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times touted the success of the Kimberley Process. A November Los Angeles Times article suggesting that DeBeers was concerned that holiday sales in the United States might suffer as a result of the movie was met with a barrage of complaints from the company’s legal department. The article was removed from the newspaper’s website and a lengthy, point-by-point correction was posted.
An ongoing debate persists over whether conflict diamonds are an issue of the past or a long-term blemish on the reputation of the diamond industry. DeBeers recently asked the film’s director, Ed Zwick, to add a disclaimer to the opening of the film identifying it as a work of fiction. The request was declined.
Nelson Mandela has weighed in on the dispute. According to a December issue of The New Republic, the former South African President wrote in a letter to Zwick, "It would be deeply regrettable if the making of the film inadvertently obscured the truth, and, as a result, led the world to believe that an appropriate response might be to cease buying mined diamonds from Africa."
Many observers point out that in Africa, the real villain is conflict, not diamonds.
"The conflict diamond problem can never be irreversibly resolved because political conflict itself is probably an enduring feature of the human condition, but systems can be devised to attenuate further the role of diamonds in encouraging violent political conflict and funding political disputes," say Marcus Noland and J. Brooks Spector in a recent study for Business Leadership South Africa.
Others have noted that conflicts raging across the African continent—from Rwanda to Sudan—have no connection to diamonds at all. But there can be no question that an unknowable number of diamonds, mined in war zones and used to fuel conflict, are circulating in the global marketplace. A growing number of voices have called for a boycott of DeBeers.
"Given the health, education, and social status of mining communities in southern Africa, the implications of a significant contraction in the diamond industry would be dire, and the possible unintended consequences associated with boycotts or other otherwise admirable initiatives should be kept clearly in mind," write Noland and Spector.
Global Witness continues to call for improvements in the Kimberley Process and reform of the self-regulation trend in the diamond industry. Only with greater transparency and accountability, they claim, can diamonds become "a positive force for development."
Given that cinema is a cultural tastemaker, Blood Diamond has a chance of damaging the global diamond trade, one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most profitable industries. But it is clear that players on all sides of the issue would like to avoid that outcome. At the very least the movie will inspire some lovers to think hard about the engagement rings they consider.