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.