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DiCaprio versus De Beers on Blood Diamonds

I won’t be rushing to the local movie theatre to see Blood Diamonds when it’s released tomorrow. That’s not because I’m scared off by the decidedly mixed reviews it has received – though you gotta love a review which includes the line, “There is every reason to learn about the link between jewels and death, by all means, but no reason to try to disguise a term paper as entertainment.” No, I won’t be there because I only watch movies on airplanes these days, and I doubt a new Leo DiCaprio flick will have made it to the small screen when I fly to Delhi on Tuesday.

But I’m enjoying watching the struggle that the movie is bringing to the forefront between activists and diamond merchants, especially De Beers, the company that dominates much of the world’s diamond trade. When the LA Times ran an article about De Beers’s concern that the movie could damage holiday sales of diamonds in the US, they were evidently met with a full-frontal assault from De Beers PR and legal departments – the current online version of the story includes one of the most remarkable addendums I’ve ever seen, a 500 word preface to the story, offering De Beers interpretation of the facts the author put forth.

The new film is set in 1999, a year before the UN called for a scheme to prevent conflict diamonds from entering public markets and three years before De Beers became a member of the Kimberly Process, the system set up by gem producers to attempt to certify that the diamonds you buy aren’t providing funding for civil wars. This means the film focuses on the bloody, evil events that led towards an international outcry and pressure for diamond sellers to ensure their stones weren’t coming from conflict zones.

A screenshot from DiamondFacts.org

In a sense, this creates an opportunity for De Beers – they can respond to the movie by saying, “Yes, those were the bad old days – let us tell you the steps we’re taking to ensure you’re not buying those blood-stained diamonds.” And this is what DiamondFacts.org, a site put together by the World Diamond Council, seeks to do. The site includes a long list of “diamond facts“, which focus on two themes: the Kimberly process means fewer stones from conflict areas are sold worldwide, and diamond mining provides a great deal of revenue to countries in Africa. These facts are consistent with the theme Kimberly Process participants have tried to emphasise over the past few years, a move from conflict diamonds to “prosperity diamonds”.

Some of the “prosperity diamond” facts are a bit disturbing, despite the WDC’s best intentions. The fact that 33% of Botswana’s GDP comes from the diamond industry strikes me as something to worry about, not something to celebrate – anyone who has studied the “resource curse” knowns that economies primarily dependent on one natural resource have a tendency to underdevelop other sectors of their economies, and to become very sensitive to price shocks and depletion of that resource…

A screenshot from RealDiamondFacts.org

More disturbing, though, are the diamond facts on RealDiamondFacts.org, a project of the Diamonds for Africa Fund, an Austin-based NGO which urges people to donate their diamonds or a fraction of their value to programs that support mining communities in Botswana, DRC and Sierra Leone. The site is a dead-on parody of the industry site, and emphasizes a different set of facts: diamonds are being mined in the rebel-held north of Ivory Coast, smuggled out of the country and sold into the global gem market, all outside of the Kimberly process. The site is critical of the Kimberly process as well, arguing that it’s ineffective because the process is internally monitored and because a small minority of retailers ensure that their diamonds are certified under the process. (This last point sounds like an argument for expanding and promoting awareness of the Kimberly Process, not for donating your ring to these guys, but that’s just me…)

(It’s almost a shame that Diamonds for Africa Fund ended up signing the site. I checked the registration information for the site and was delighted to find that it was registered to Foday Sankoh, the deceased rebel leader who instigated Sierra Leone’s civil war. The address and phone number used were that of Tiffany & Co. in New York City. Heh.)

Conflict diamonds have gotten a great deal of attention in the past few years, with Kanye West helping to bring some awareness to the bling-bling set (and following in the footsteps of Talib Kweli, who actually managed to rap about mining and globalization, instead of just invoking conflict in his song title…) But the link between human rights abuses and natural resources goes much deeper than just diamonds. Global Witness, one of the leading organizations focused on these issues, looks at oil and timber as well as diamonds. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo was fueled not just by diamond and timber sales, but by illegal export of coltan, an ore that contains tantalum, valuable for use in capacitors widely used in mobile phones. The military junta in Burma and groups opposed to their control have been implicated in drug and gem smuggling. If it’s transportable and valuable – especially if it’s small enough to conceal – there’s the strong temptation for criminals, rebel groups and corrupt government officials to steal and sell it.

The upside of the DiCaprio film could be awareness that natural resource smuggling of all kinds robs desperately poor people of money they need and funds people who abuse and often kill them. But it might be enough if it simply causes some gem buyers to ask for paperwork on the stones they’re buying – an investigation by UK group Insight News TV which called their project “Blood on the Stone” found that New York diamond dealers were willing and eager to buy stones without Kimberly Process paperwork.

There’s another group with high hopes for the film – a group of Kalahari Bushmen who argue that diamond mining in Botswana is pushing them off their land. The activists, working with Survival International, took out a full-page ad in Variety appealing to DiCaprio to support their protests. No word yet on whether DiCaprio is likely to support their cause.

Christine Chen’s post on the forthcoming movie at Foreign Policy’s excellent Passport blog led me the RealDiamondFacts.org site – thanks, Passport.

9 thoughts on “DiCaprio versus De Beers on Blood Diamonds”

  1. Ethan

    Interesting post (as always), you cover a lot of ground and try to be balanced, a combination not many bloggers can pull off successfully.

    A question though: “resource curse” not withstanding, I am not sure why the fact that Botswana gets 35% of its GDP from diamonds should be troubling. Botswana has the fastest per capita growth rate in the world, most of which is in sectors outside diamond mining. A bigger concern and a more important point to focus on for that nation would be AIDS especially since statistics suggest that the populations affected are communities involved in mining. (Wikipedia has great links, I do not want to post too many of them so that my comment does not get flagged as spam).

  2. Really good point, Ntwiga. I glossed over the resource dependency issue pretty quickly here, and you’re right that Botswana probably isn’t the best example, as they’re doing a good job of turning diamond wealth into other types of jobs. That said, across the board, resource-rich economies tend to have three problems:
    – There’s a great incentive to steal those resources, or for government to become corrupt so they can steal those resources

    – There’s often less government spending on education than in countries that have no natural resources, because there’s an assumption that many people can go into the diamond/oil/timber sector

    – Your economy is heavily dependent on market forces. This is especially important in the diamond sector, which De Beers has demonstrated is small enough to be manipulated.

    None of this says that Botswana can’t handle the situation well and use this wealth to educate and uplift their people… but lots of countries fall to the downside of the resource curse instead.

  3. Coupla things:

    I saw Blood Diamond last night. Don’t waste your time. The ending didn’t really make any sense (well, I guess it did, but it just wasn’t realistic), Leonardo DiCaprio’s fake Zimbabwean accent sounds horrible and there are just too many subtle nuances about history and race relations of southern Africa for most viewers (outside of SA and Zim) to comprehend.

    Also, Botswana President Festus Mogae was on PBS’ Charlie Rose show, and he talked about transitioning the Botswanan economy off diamonds (basically, he wants to plow a lot of the profits into infrastructure, education and investments). It’s ambitious, and it was refreshing to hear such talk from an African head of state.

  4. Pingback: Ejovi Nuwere » Zuckerman on Blood Diamonds

  5. I just want to comment on the issue of the Bushmen’s petition to DiCrapio. Two weeks ago the High Court of Botswana ruled that Botswana Government had acted unlawfully in removing the Bushment from a certain ‘Central Kalahari Game Reserve’ the court however found no link between the removals and diamond mining. the link was created mostly by Survival International (SI), who have been making all sorts of efforts to taint Botswana diamonds as Conflict or blood diamonds. They even were party to the formation of a website called ‘Boycotdebeers’ whose major aim is to campaign against De Beers. i am convinced that there are some sponsors behind this heavy campaign against De Beers which implicates Botswana diamonds, possibly its a De Beers competitor. Before many people’s eyes in Botswana SI is just a willing vehicle for an unfounded and malicious campaign against De Beers.

  6. fontaine, you shouldn’t be deterred from going to see an important message because some guy had a flaky accent. It had an incredibly important message to it.

  7. I am writing a paper for my english 101 class on conflict diamonds, and found this page very informative. I was wondering if you could inform me of more sites that would be just as informative, and just as unbias, thank you for your work…

  8. Diamonds is the issue because of its currency and decorative value among the rich as a futures and not its economic value as a natural resource like oil, timber and coltan for other industries. The idea of ‘prosperity diamonds’ might be better understood if its category as a natural resource might be more closely identified with the economy of the ‘haves’ than of the ‘have nots’ like ‘prosperity cocaine’ in Afghanistan is not directly part of the supply chain to the economy of world industry as oil is.
    The West has been doing serious trade with Africa for over 200 years and it is a very embarrassing history of large scale violent abuse. A recent docu-drama about the rubber trade connection between the government of King Leopold of Belgium and the Congo in the 1880’s highlights not only the West’s very poor legacy in our trading relationship with Africa but also serves as a reminder of the present day indictment that the movie ‘Blood Diamonds’ tries to show. Part of the indictment I feel is not so much that the revenue from black market trading has been filtered into the hands of local militias but that the arms trade itself is not regulated properly.
    It would be every so slightly hypcritical of the West to wag a censorial finger at the way militias have got hold of weapons in Sudan, in Botswana, or in Sierra Leone, when it wasn’t long ago that the West were supporting militias in Israel using revenues from their ‘natural resources’.
    Personally, I believe the weapons trade is a far greater threat than the gems trade because the economic dependency it has created (an argument used as a kind of moral justification) in terms of a head count of an economically dependent workforce, is a million times greater.*
    *I am compiling a work of art about the interpolating links between governments, weapons manufacturing and over arching corporate finance that shows how all the simpler functions of national economies like steel fabrication, software engineering and narrow field university research rely on income from the bigger functions of military consortiums under the auspices of companies like Boeing or of joint projects between countries on WOMDs like the Eurofighter.
    Compared with the global economic dependency on military hardware the ‘blood on our hands’ ticket we stuck on a handful of diamonds looks rather shabby to me.

  9. I do want to donate my ring. Does anyone know of a legit charity where my money will actually go to those in need?

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