Digging out the dirt on diamonds

🕔Apr 06, 2007

The other night an acquaintance in Smithers told me excitedly that he’d just gotten engaged. “Here, let me show you the ring,” he said, and proceeded to hold up the diamond-laden ring on his young fiancée’s hand.

I was a bit taken aback. Although not an uncommon gesture, those who know me have recently been speaking differently about the sparkly gems.

“This was my grandmother’s ring,” said one.

“I asked the jeweler and made sure this was conflict-free,” said another.

The organization that I work with, One Sky, is involved in raising awareness about conflict resources such as diamonds. Conflict diamonds, or “blood diamonds,” are rough diamonds mined in conflict zones that are used by armed groups to finance conflict, often committing grave human rights abuses. There’s currently a tipping point occurring in the trend to symbolize love with ‘clean’ diamonds. With a recent increase in publicity around war-torn, diamond-driven regions like Sierra Leone, ethical consumers are looking for solutions.

There’s still a surging demand for the glittering glass: the world market in diamond jewelry is over $60 billion annually. The DeBeers marketing campaign—launched over half a century ago—symbolically linking love and commitment to a hard piece of carbon, is touted as one of the most successful and innovative campaigns in history. And Canada has one of the highest diamond engagement ring acquisition rates in the world (85% of all brides).

But many couples are “greening up” their weddings and romances. If you’re one of the more than 22,000 couples getting married in BC this year, you too can use your consumer power to help change the diamond industry.

Is your diamond clean?

One Sky, a non-profit organization based in Smithers, has been working in partnerships on sustainable livelihood initiatives with organizations in Sierra Leone since 2000. One Sky launched a “Blood Diamonds are for Never” campaign in Canada in 2001 to attack the driver of the 11-year conflict in this West African nation that left upwards of 50,000 dead, half a million displaced and thousands of amputees. The war was not an ideological one, but was based instead on controlling this rich resource that in turn paid for arms and drugs to keep the conflict going.

With relentless efforts by Partnership Africa Canada, Global Witness, Amnesty International and others, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme came into force in 2003. This tri-partite agreement between governments, industry and NGOs created a mechanism that aims to keep conflict diamonds out of the system, and ensure trading only among compliant members.

The Kimberley Process, while still needing to be strengthened with more political will, has brought significant progress for Sierra Leone. Diamond exports from Sierra Leone were reported at $1.2 million in 1999 at the peak of the conflict, and rose to $142 million by 2005. They are the principal foreign-exchange earner in a country consistently at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.

While conflict diamonds are no longer an issue in Sierra Leone, it is difficult to say diamonds are now ‘clean,’ or that everyone’s benefiting. Although diamonds have been mined in Kono for over 70 years, the area has no electricity, no district water or septic systems, and remnants of bombed-out buildings are still littered throughout the town. The landscape is cratered and scarred with tens of thousands of unregulated mining pits, overturned soil, and pools of stagnant, mosquito-infested water. The nearby forests, having been exploited heavily for fuel-wood and charcoal production, are now the only source of agricultural land. There are no regulations to restore former placer-mining pits. In the words of a local paramount chief, the discovery of diamonds “has not been a blessing, but a curse.”

The majority of mining in Sierra Leone is done with picks and sieves, mining alluvial deposits (soil washed downstream by rivers and deposited over a large area). In the Kono region, over 100,000 men and children are digging in difficult conditions, often for a mere plate of rice a day—unless they chance to discover a gem (known as the tributor system), and even then they are enormously underpaid.

There are definitely people getting rich from the sale of diamonds around the world, but it’s not the people digging them. Yet, as the second largest employer in Sierra Leone (after subsistence agriculture), the gamble in diamond mining remains a significant livelihood for people with few options.

A glitter of hope

At a recent discussion in Smithers following the showing of the Hollywood film Blood Diamond (with Leonardo DiCaprio), those present heard Sierra Leonean Benji Kamara describe his plight during the resource conflict. Listening to personal stories like his make taking action even more compelling.

As we learn of the atrocities of the war in Sierra Leone from films like Blood Diamond, or hip-hop star Kanye West’s Grammy award-winning Diamonds from Sierra Leone, there is a tendency for socially conscious consumers to want to ban African diamonds (which make up some 60% of the world’s gem diamonds) altogether. In fact, one Vancouver couple was so distraught after seeing the DiCaprio film that they sold their wedding rings and are looking to donate the funds to war-affected Sierra Leoneans.

However, instead of banning African diamonds and taking away one of some African nations’ few sources of income, One Sky and other NGOs are encouraging solutions that contribute to development and environmental restoration in these countries. Without alternatives in place, a ban will only affect the most vulnerable.

One Sky has a “green diamonds” campaign where consumers can donate directly toward alluvial mining restoration in the Kono district of Sierra Leone. As well as improving the landscape, sustainable livelihoods are created by transforming land into organic agriculture plots. A certificate is sent to supporters and an update on progress will be sent out at the end of the year.

Love is complicated enough, but by making ethical choices or taking action you can feel good about your diamonds. And when you go to show your ring, you’ll also have a compelling story to tell.

What you can do: Partnership Africa Canada (www.blooddiamond.pacweb.org/whatcanyoudo)PAC has a list of actions including writing letters to the Kimberley Process Chair and governments to strengthen it. They have also launched the Diamond Development Initiative (www.blooddiamond.pacweb.org/ddi/index.php).

Peace Diamond Alliance (www.resourcebeneficiation.org)
PDA is working on the ground in Sierra Leone as part of an “Integrated Diamond Management” initiative that helps set up co-operatives, provides training in diamond valuation to diggers, and is working toward fair-trade diamonds.

One Sky’s “Green Diamonds” campaign (www.onesky.ca/diamonds/index.html) is challenging diamond consumers to “green” their diamond purchases by supporting environmental restoration in the alluvial diamond mining areas in Sierra Leone. One Sky is also offering a world tour to Sierra Leone in April 2008 (www.onesky.ca).

How Green Was My Wedding was a recent article in the New York Times (Feb. 11th, 2007) that has several links on ways to have a more environmentally friendly wedding. (www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/fashion/11green.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)