Diamonds have long been a glittering symbol of success – a dazzling emblem of wealth and prosperity. In rich developed nations, an insatiable desire for these shiny rocks led to the diamond industry booming throughout the 20th Century – as the famous, or now possibly infamous, De Beers slogan once proudly declared – ‘diamonds are forever.’
Yet behind their shimmering, hypnotic facade lies a truly dark story that delves into some of the very worst of humanity. The term ‘blood diamond’ began appearing towards the end of the 20th Century as a way of describing diamonds that had been procured from war zones, where they were sold to finance insurgencies, war efforts, or warlord activities. Often dug out by people who were either forced to work in the most horrific conditions or who did so because the meager pay, sometimes less than one dollar a day, is the only thing that’s keeping their family from starvation.
The is a very good reason why the existence of these types of diamond mines was kept quiet for so long because that gleaming stone from Tiffany’s might not carry the same kind of wow factor if the person wearing it knew that it had been dug out a muddied hell hole by a seven-year-old child.
At the start of the new millennium, and with campaigns against blood diamonds gathering pace, there were some concerted efforts around the world to curtail such heinous exploitation. The Kimberly Process in 2003 sought to establish a broad certification scheme for diamonds aimed at preventing the extraction and sale of blood diamonds.
Over 20 years later we rarely hear the phrase blood diamonds anymore, which must surely mean that everything is ship-shape and entirely above board. Honestly, I would love to tell you that that’s the case, but sadly it couldn’t be further from the truth. While the anger surrounding blood diamonds has been suppressed and redirected, the extraction and sale of these conflict minerals remain rampant.
Humans have been salivating over diamonds for thousands of years and they, along with gold, have come to be synonymous with spectacular wealth – but if we want to be really specific, they are simply a solid form of carbon with its atoms arranged in a crystal structure.
Diamonds are some of the rarest rocks around and most are between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years old. The majority were formed at depths between 150 km and 250 km (93 to 155 miles) in the Earth’s mantle – with some originating even further down – and can be excavated in several ways.
Historically, diamonds were typically mined from alluvial deposits, loose clay, silt, sand, or gravel that has been deposited by running water in a stream, a floodplain, or on a beach. When we see images of hundreds of people digging in a muddied pit, this is usually an alluvial deposit.
However, this method is fairly small-fry compared to the more industrial mining of kimberlites and lamproites pipes, which are subterranean geological structures that formed after the eruption of a deep-lying volcano – around three times as deep as normal volcanoes to be exact – and which contain the vast majority of mined diamonds.
Mining in this method is much harder but the reward can be spectacular. To date, around 6,400 kimberlite pipes have been discovered around the world, but only 900 of them have been labeled as ‘diamondiferous’, and just 30 are economically viable enough to become a diamond mine.
The Global Diamond Industry
I think we can all name a few shady industries that we’ve long suspected are far from squeaky clean, but the diamond industry comes with a lot of baggage. Now, let me just say from the outset that not everybody and every company associated with the diamond industry necessarily fall under the Montgomery Burns guise of corporate super-villain.
There have been great strides – some of which were even fairly genuine and not just publicity drives – at improving the overall process of how diamonds are mined, cut, polished, and then sold for staggering amounts, either on 5th Avenue in New York or under a far less opaque system that we shall simply call, ‘behind closed doors’.
A mammoth 130,000,000 carats (28 tons) of diamonds are mined annually, worth around $9 billion. The majority of these come from kimberlite mines in South Africa, Botswana, Russia, Zimbabwe, and Canada, with 92% of the world’s diamonds being cut and polished in the Indian city of Surat – and I bet you can guess why.
Cutting and polishing essentially means the diamond is shaped into the desired form before its dazzling shine is fully brought out. It’s an absolutely vital part of the process and if you can find a place where people are sometimes paid just $5 a day for a 12-hour shift, profit margins are considerably higher.
Antwerp of all places has long been considered the ‘diamond capital of the world’ and it’s here that 80% of all rough diamonds and 50% of all cut diamonds pass through before being transported to buyers or sellers around the world. In 2001, the uncut diamond market was worth approximately $7.9 billion ($12.5 billion today), while the finished end was worth $54.1 billion ($84.5 billion today).
De Beers is the world’s largest diamond company, an organization that was formed in 1888, and has come in for a torrent of criticism for its practices over the years. From its colonial origins and blatant support for the sales of blood diamonds to the flooding of the market with diamonds or withholding them as a way of pressurizing other businesses who refused to play ball, De Beers has courted controversy in many, many different forms.
The Kimberley Process
In July 2000, the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp passed a resolution that sought to block the sales of blood diamonds, which included; an international certification system on the export and import of diamonds, legislation in all countries to accept only officially sealed packages of diamonds, criminal charges on anyone trafficking in conflict diamonds, and instituted a ban on any individual found trading in conflict diamonds from the diamond bourses of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses.
Three years later in 2003, the Kimberley Process was formally signed and I think it’s fair to say that the world gave itself a good pat on the back that one of the worlds’ truly evil practices was finally on the way out.
But as I’ve already alluded to, the Kimberly Process comes with more holes than a block of Maasdam cheese. Firstly, the term blood diamond is only given to rocks where their sale financially benefits insurgences, which essentially means anything mined by a government, even if its profits lead to bloodshed, isn’t considered a blood diamond.
Secondly, it almost completely sidesteps the matter of working conditions in mines that are deemed to be ‘clean’ – which are in fact absolutely unimaginable – while also effectively turning a blind eye to rampant corruption. And finally, the Kimberley Process has struggled to stop the smuggling of diamonds out of conflict zones and into countries that can produce the required certificate.
While the Kimberley Process no doubt came with some good intentions and has certainly made it harder to deal in blood diamonds, it’s impossible to say that it has been a success, and there is one part of the world where the thirst for diamonds has wreaked havoc for decades and continues to do so today.
While blood diamonds have very much become a global issue, it has long been Africa that has received the greatest burden of this nasty industry. Independence movements began sweeping the continent in the 1960s, but for many, it was a brief period of hope followed by years and even decades of bloodshed.
In the seventy years since independence came to Africa, the continent has seen a staggering number of bloody civil wars, some of which are still ongoing. It can be difficult to pinpoint specific causes, though the arbitrary lumping of different ethnicities under a single flag by the Europeans probably didn’t help.
Add in high levels of poverty, failed political institutions, shattering corruption, and economic dependence on natural resources, and you have yourself a powder keg waiting to go off. Diamonds are not the only natural resource that has been plundered to finance war, with oil becoming another lucrative asset, but it is in the continent of Africa that the term blood diamond really originated from.
The Democratic Republic of Congo
Few counties on Earth have suffered in quite the same way as the DRC. In fact, so bad has been the last 150 years in the country, we’ve done an entire video on the subject here on Into the Shadows.
The Congolese story has been a depressing one that has seen a steady stream of outside meddling and viscous internal conflicts tear the country apart for decades now. The statistics here are stark; 73% of Congolese live below the global poverty line ($1.90 a day), 43% of children are malnourished and the country has a refugee population of around half a million. And all of that is while the country sits above an estimated $23 trillion worth of natural resources. The DRC is simultaneously one of the poorest countries on the planet and one of the richest in terms of what lies beneath the ground.
When the country collapsed into a complicated civil war in the 1990s, there was an immediate scramble for control over the diamond mines. Rebel groups, and their Rwandan allies, were able to make significant progress thanks to funding brought in from these mines. The vast majority of the diamonds mined in the DRC were smuggled out of the country illegally, often through other African nations, such as Rwanda or Angola, before arriving on the world market.
Today, the fighting may have calmed down, but the conditions are still appalling in the Congolese diamond mines, while the industry as a whole remains in the hands of a select few who are making vast amounts of money on the back of this beleaguered nation.
Sierra Leone experienced a vicious eleven-year civil war between 1991 and 2002 that saw large parts of the country’s diamond industry fall into the hands of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group battling the government.
At its height, it’s thought that the RUF were mining roughly $125 million worth of diamonds each year, and this was often done in the most appalling of ways, involving kidnapping, slave, and child labour. And sadly, things have hardly improved since the end of the civil war. With large numbers required in the mines, it’s not uncommon for security services working for the companies, or individuals, who own the mines, to enslave local people to bulk up the workforce.
Whether it’s Sierra Leone, the Congo, or one of the many other areas that continue to see the appearance of blood diamonds, the pattern is always the same. Fabulous wealth is plucked from the ground by the very poor, which is then sold on to make a fortune for whoever owns the mine. Areas around these pits of extraordinary wealth continue to be some of the most impoverished places on the planet, despite millions of dollars worth of shining rocks passing through them every year.
The Kono district in Sierra Leone is a perfect example of this and has been heavily mined now for 70 years. But despite this, the area remains without many basic facilities, such as electricity and well-maintained roads – wherever all the profits are going from the mine in Kono, it certainly isn’t trickling down to the local community.
Angola is yet another torrid tale of war and exploitation. The civil war here, principally between the government in power and a rebel group known as UNITA, dragged on for 27 years and killed an estimated half a million people. Illegal diamond operations were so complex in Angola that the UN commissioned a report on the matter, which was carried out by Robert Fowler, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.
When the Fowler Report arrived in 2000 it blew the lid on what many had long suspected but struggled to prove, that the diamond industry was not just dirty, but rolling around in its own filth. The Fowler Report was commissioned because the UN couldn’t understand how UNITA was able to keep fighting on, despite widespread sanctions against the group as part of the Lusaka Protocol, which aimed to disarm and integrate the rebel group.
The report revealed that the group was able to continue fighting with the help of an astonishingly wide array of friendly parties who were willing to break international sanctions to enrich their wallets. The governments of Togo, Burkino Faso, the Congo, Zambia, and Nambia were directly named concerning illegal diamond operations, while South African nationals were also heavily involved, not least a shady character by the name of Ronnie De Decker who seemed rather good at importing Eastern European weaponry into Angola in exchange for diamonds. These diamonds were then said to be shovelled through De Beers, who openly acknowledged spending $500 million on legal and illegal Angolan diamonds in 1992 alone.
However, where things start to get a little vague is when the report discusses influence further afield. There’s plenty of mention of the ‘Antwerp Market’ – which at the time controlled 80% of the world’s diamond trade and where most of the diamonds coming out of Angola went – but apart from highlighting a lack of regulation in the industry and stating that those really involved appeared to be very well protected, it failed to reveal the ‘western’ side of the blood diamond story.
If I was being cynical about things, I would say that the report stopped just short of naming European individuals and companies that have been deeply complicit in funding civil wars in Africa for a long time, while being more than happy to highlight the rampant corruption across Africa.
Make no mistake about it, this corruption went around the world, but some seemed much better at disguising it and protecting themselves than others. All in all, the UN estimated UNITA made at least $3.72 billion (around $6.4 billion today) from diamond sales despite international sanctions.
While the Fowler Report had produced a mixed bag, it was enough to spur on the diamond industry to begin formulating what would eventually be the Kimberley Process. As I said earlier, the first major attempt to regulate the diamond industry has seen some success, but it would be a far cry to call it successful.
Human Rights Watch recently compiled a report on the sourcing practices of 13 of the largest jewelry and watchmakers, and with none of the companies gaining an excellent rating, and only one (Tiffany’s) considered ‘strong’, the remaining 12 divide themselves between moderate, weak, very weak and no ratings because of a lack of transparency. It seems perfectly clear that even today, many of the most recognizable names in the jewelry and watch industry have absolutely no idea where their diamonds are coming from.
But the stories on the ground are even worse. Many mines in African nations are considered artisanal mines which require little to no mechanical equipment but do need many, many hands. There are an estimated 1.5 million artisanal miners in Africa, many entirely dependent on the tiny income supplied by whoever is running the mine.
Conditions in these mines, often in remote locations with absolutely no oversight, are frequently appalling and there are consistent reports of kidnappings, slave labour, child labour, violence, rape, and widespread intimidation. All while the diamonds extracted from them continue to enter our markets, either legally through loopholes within the Kimberley Process, or illegally by smuggling them through other countries who can provide the required documentation. It’s impossible to say just what percentage of the global market should be considered blood diamonds, but between 5 and 15% is generally mooted, though that figure could be much higher.
Blood diamonds is a phrase we rarely hear these days, but the truth is that diamonds mined thanks to the blood, sweat, and tears of impoverished Africans are still flooding the market at an alarming rate. It may have been a topic of great global consciousness in the early years of the 21st Century, but the topic attracts precious little attention today.
Diamonds have long provided the dirty money to fund war in Africa, along with other parts of the world, with the western market either unknowing and blissfully ignorant to the fact, or at times deliberately and callously using these wars to increase profits. And sadly, despite grandiose attempts at regulation, it’s problem that remains rampant even today.