During the 1990s and into the current decade, rebel armies in Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) financed their wars of insurgency and atrocity by taking over the diamond fields of these countries and smuggling the diamonds to other countries to enter the international diamond marketplace. As much as 15% of the world’s $10 billion annual rough diamond production was probably conflict diamonds also known as "blood diamonds." The result of these conflict diamond financed wars was the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the displacement of millions of people and the destruction of the health, education, and economic infrastructure for many poor countries.
To deal with the issue of conflict diamonds, the World Diamond Congress of 2000 created a World Diamond Council to act on behalf of the international diamond industry. The result was the development of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), implemented in 2003. Over 45 participating countries, plus all those represented by the European Community, agree to issue a certificate to accompany any rough diamonds exported from its territory, certifying that the diamonds are conflict-free. Each country must therefore be able to track the diamonds offered for export back to the point of import and must meet a set of standards for these internal controls. In addition, importing countries agree only to allow rough diamonds into their territory if they have an approved KPCS certificate.
The Kimberley Process has been successful in helping to reduce the percentage of conflict diamonds down well below 1% of the world’s rough diamonds. This decline is also a result of wars ending in Angola and Sierra Leone. The political situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still unstable but it is no longer a significant source of conflict diamonds. Liberia’s terrible war is also ended and the country expects United Nations diamond embargo to be lifted in 2007.
Today the only significant source of conflict diamonds is in the rebel-held regions of northern Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), with most of the diamonds smuggled through Ghana.
While this dramatic reduction in conflict diamonds is good news, the diamond industry is bracing for repercussions as millions of people worldwide are introduced to the history of conflict diamonds in the form of a Hollywood movie and documentary films. December 8th is the scheduled premier of Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly. The 2006 film, directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Courage under Fire), is the tale of an unscrupulous American diamond smuggler who sets out to retrieve a very large diamond at the height of Sierra Leone’s horrific civil war.
Two documentary films coincide with the release of Blood Diamond. The first, Blood on the Stone, produced by Insight News Television, illustrates that the issues raised in the fictional story (Blood Diamonds) remain alive and well today. The second documentary, Bling, follows three hip-hop artists to Sierra Leone where they observe the condition of today’s diamond miners.
The diamond industry is concerned that public backlash to the films will reduce demand in general and produce a boycott of African diamonds, particularly from Sierra Leone, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Many moviegoers will assume that conflict diamonds are still sourced from these countries even though the wars are ended and diamond trade is now legitimate. In fact, these countries now depend on their diamond trade to rebuild their war torn countries. The victims of the wars would suffer from any backlash. There are as many as 120,000 diggers in Sierra Leone, 800,000 in the DRC and many tens of thousands in Angola whose livelihood depends on diamonds mined and sold under the Kimberley Process.
This potential backlash also comes at a time when the diamond industry is trying to convert diamonds into the engine for development in many other poor countries where the miners have not received their fair share of the wealth. In 2005, the Diamond Development Initiative was launched to improve the working conditions and futures of the hundreds of thousands of artisanal diamond miners, who for the most part use shovels, pans and their hands to extract the diamonds from the earth. For decades, these miners have remained in absolute poverty while the other parties in the diamond pipeline have shared substantial wealth.
Now, the diamond industry wants to initiate change that will ensure a better life for these miners. Key players during the Diamond Development Initiative startup phase have been Partnership Africa Canada, the Foundation for Environmental Sustainability and Security, Global Witness, De Beers, the Rapaport Group, the International Diamond Manufacturer’s Association and the Communities and Small-Scale Mining Secretariat of the World Bank.
Hollywood, with powerful images and big names like Leonardo DiCaprio, will soon be a catalyst for change in the perceptions of diamond buyers worldwide. We only hope that the public will not overreact and cause continued suffering and pain. Yes, conflict diamonds must be eliminated as soon as possible. However, that does not mean that diamonds are somehow tainted or corrupted, especially from the countries that need this valuable resource to rebuild their war torn communities. The world needs to help these poor countries, not punish them.