Blood Diamonds Are Forever

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In 2006, the major motion picture “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo DiCaprio brought widespread attention to the issue of conflict diamond mining, grossing over $57 million in North America, and receiving five Academy Award nominations. After introducing most Americans to the issues of conflict diamonds and civil wars in Africa, however, the movie faded from public consciousness.

In reality, though, the civil wars that inspired the movie were long over—conflicts had subsided in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where “Blood Diamond” was based. Following U.N. sanctions and reports in the late-1990s and early 2000s, changes stirred within the diamond industry.

In 2003, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme was established, combining the powers of government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and industry to create the first major regulation aimed at quelling the trade of conflict diamonds worldwide.

“It was certainly a groundbreaking initiative when it was first made, for a number of reasons,” explains Alan Martin, Director of Research at Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), a natural resource governance NGO. “It was taking the issue of responsible sourcing to the diamond sector and forcing the diamond sector to change the way it did business. It brought the idea of people sharing information and statistics about how things are created, which is quite good.”

The Kimberley Process also had a major effect on the increase of legitimate diamond exports, and provided an example of private and public sector partnership in an industry that went largely unchecked for decades.

“A lot of governments consider this … a model process,” says Rob Bates, News Director of Jewlers’ Circular-Keystone, the jewelry industry’s leading trade publication. “Whether it’s through happenstance, the instances of conflict diamonds are a lot less serious than they were 15 years ago.”

But despite a drop in the instances of conflict diamonds worldwide, the Kimberley Process has come under fire for not going far enough. It only defines conflict diamonds as those sold to fund the rebel side of a civil war—wars that have, for the most part, been over since the early 2000s. NGOs such as PAC and the Diamond Development Initiative work to address human rights issues that surround these diamond mining communities.

“The issues that artisanal diamond miners are facing are of a developmental nature,” Dorothee Gizenga, Executive Director of the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), tells BTR. “Examples of that are overcrowding, unfair pricing, child labor, environmental damage, and numerous health and safety issues.”

Major occurrences of violence and human rights violations have arisen since. The Marange mineral rush in Zimbabwe in 2009 brought about a swath of illegal miners, smugglers, forced labor, and massacre. In 2011, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais published the book “Blood Diamonds,” describing in grim detail the violent, torturous, and sometimes murderous practices of military generals in control of mines within the country.

“At the beginning, the Kimberly Process had a very narrow focus, and still does, unfortunately, on only addressing human rights abuses perpetuated by rebel groups,” Martin says. “So you can have government or private security companies doing all manners of human rights abuses, and the Kimberly Process will shrug its shoulders and say, ‘Sorry, we’re only interested in [rebel] military groups.’”

“In theory it’s great, but in practice it hasn’t been able to be everything it wanted,” Bates says. “It’s something that gives improvement but doesn’t solve all the issues.”

Even with the ineffectiveness and inflexibility of the Kimberley Process, Gizenga acknowledges that the issues tackled by the DDI and other NGOs would not be as prevalent without it.

“The Kimberley Process has brought in a lot of transparency that didn’t exist before,” Gizenga says. “Now we can focus on some of the issues that were never exposed before, because they are more visible. The human rights, the child labor, the environmental damage can now have the prominence that they need to have.”

Once those issues are brought to the forefront, the priority becomes resolving them as quickly as possible—something that proves difficult when dealing with governments and organizations protecting natural resources vital to their economies.

The next logical course of action, then, is to affect actual consumers of diamonds, making the United States the largest potential agent for change.

According to Diamond Shades, the U.S. accounted for 44 percent of the world’s entire diamond consumption, or $32.7 billion worth, in 2013. That’s nearly triple the next closest country, India, at 12 percent. Diamond Shades forecasts the U.S. to “remain the most important market for diamond consumption for many years to come,” due to its massive economy and a “deeply rooted ‘diamond culture’” within the country.

“Most engagements today are celebrated with diamonds in some form, so I think they have a good image here and elsewhere,” Bates says. “Obviously, that’s owed to advertising.”

Diamonds have long been synonymous with martial engagements and romance in America. In 1947, a copywriter named Frances Gerety coined the world-famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” for diamond giant De Beers, cementing the mineral’s place in the country’s psyche ever since. In fact, Gizenga believes that regardless of any kind of egregious scandals that may arise, the consumption of diamonds, particularly by Americans, will remain mostly unchanged.

“I think that everyone at some point will react appropriately to the shock, whatever that shock may be, and then they will just move on,” Gizenga muses, adding that as a luxury good, diamonds aren’t regularly rocked by controversy. “Money does have the power of neutralizing sentiments.”

Consumers do have options, however. Retailers such as Forevermark and Brilliant Earth promise customers “ethically sourced” diamonds that are free from conflict at any level of the process.

“We begin by carefully selecting the countries and mines that supply our diamonds,” Kathryn Money, Vice President of Strategy and Merchandising for Brilliant Earth, explains to BTR. “We then track our diamonds as they are cut, polished, and transported to ensure the supply chain is not corrupted by diamonds with violent or unethical histories.”

The model of these retailers is to supplement the Kimberley Process in areas where it comes up short, and to bank on expanding consumer consciousness, particularly amongst younger people.

“Millennials are a very different generation than older ones,” Martin observes, “in the sense that they are being brought up on a steady diet of ethical sourcing, from what goes in your body to what you put on your ring finger. So before it was kind of a niche, novelty market full of people looking for that sort of thing.”

It’s that very rise in consumer consciousness, as well as shifting sentiments in engagement and romance, that could prove to be a catalyst for change in areas that NGOs such as PAC and DDI have long fought to address—even if it takes a generation or two.

“Now, there are all these kinds of people who are circumventing that De Beers marketing strategy,” Martin says. “That’s what scares the living bejesus out of these industry guys. They can be doing everything right in the U.S., but it’s more about public perceptions of the industry at large.”