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Diamonds in the rough


Not so rare after all? Rough diamonds found around Mbuji-Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Marc Schlossman / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

Dust swirled across razor wire over the vast shantytown and engulfed me. It encrusted my lips, got into my eyes. The dust was kimberlite, a grey rock from which diamonds are extracted and named after the town in which I stood: Kimberley, South Africa, a place of fabulous diamond riches set in a sea of poverty.

The kimberlite dust blew from diamond mines fortified with military-like security, controlled from an elegant two-storey building just a kilometre away. This is the headquarters of De Beers, a company that has ruled the diamond world for over 100 years. This powerful company is now part of the campaign against conflict diamonds. Controlled by the billionaire Oppenheimer family, the current chair, Nicky, was preceded in his office by his father Harry and his grandfather Ernest. In the nearby white suburbs streets are named after them.

In the last few years, they have slashed the wages of many of the black mineworkers who live in the shanty towns. Many of these miners also live in decaying huts within the mines’ perimeters.

When I asked if they ever got their lovers a diamond ring, they laughed and said De Beers brought them divorce not love since it was so hard to support their families. If a wife gets a job in one of De Beers’ more remote mines, perhaps as a cleaner, she has to stay in the single women’s quarters and is punished if found sleeping with her husband. This privilege is reserved for workers on higher wage bands who are nearly all non-black.

Gem control

When Africa was ruled by colonial regimes, De Beers negotiated marketing control over rich diamond deposits in Angola, the Congo, Sierra Leone and Ghana. When African diamond-producing nations began to gain independence, their control over Africa’s diamonds was weakened further. De Beers’ was well positioned to benefit from the changing circumstances on the continent.

In 1960 when Africa’s first elected president, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, decided to market his country’s diamonds independently, he was deposed in a coup. Similarly, when Prime Minister Lumumba – the first and only elected leader in the Congo – said in 1960 that he wanted to use his country’s diamonds for his country’s development, he was murdered with the assistance of the CIA and Belgian Intelligence. His replacement, the corrupt dictator Mobutu, was funded by a secret diamond deal.1

When Angola gained a freely elected socialist government, the CIA funded a rebellion led by local group UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).2 But after oil was discovered there, President Clinton decided that he could do business with its government and in 1993 ended CIA support for UNITA. The rebels then seized Angolan diamond mines and financed the continuation of this very bloody war to the tune of $3.7 billion by selling diamonds. As Global Witness reported in 1998 in A Rough Trade: ‘De Beers’ annual reports during the 1990s clearly state the company’s heavy involvement in buying Angolan rough diamonds, at the height of resumed fighting and a time when UNITA controlled the majority of Angola’s diamond production.’3

It may be that these purchases were made to keep Angolan stones from flooding the market and lowering the world’s diamond prices. This had long been believed to be De Beers’ policy. When Angola was first found to be rich in diamonds, Ernest Oppenheimer had warned: ‘If uncontrolled, these will be a very serious menace to the market.’ Likewise, when Sierra Leone was found to be rich in diamonds, a De Beers report said: ‘These fields are a real menace to De Beers.’4 The diamond giant then protected itself by negotiating total control over these fields.

‘When I asked if they ever got their lovers a diamond ring, they laughed and said De Beers brought them divorce not love’

The continuation of the Angolan war was now against the interests of the West. Thus, when the NGO Global Witness pointed out how diamonds were funding the Angolan civil war, it gained surprising support from both the British and US governments and De Beers shortly came under pressure not to buy what were fast becoming known as ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds.

De Beers announced for the first time ever that it would not buy any diamonds from these countries, even if they were not ‘conflict’ gems – trusting that the conflict diamond campaign would take them off the market. Perhaps for the first time, De Beers’ interests, the strategic needs of the US and human rights NGOs all seemed to coincide. De Beers announced it would not buy any diamonds from Sierra Leone, since in that country diamonds had helped to finance, train and equip brutal insurgents.5 A fortunate side effect for De Beers’ from all this, was that by shunning conflict diamonds, it could expect to reap higher profits as the quantity of diamonds on the global market decreased thereby increasing their value.

A town called Kimberley

The ‘Kimberley Process’, as the agreement to control the trade in conflict diamonds negotiated in the town of Kimberley became known, was set up between 2000 and 2003 with the support of the British and US governments and De Beers. It was designed to remove diamonds produced by armed rebels from the market. Yet it contained a major oversight which reflects the interests of the powers that support it. The Kimberley Process exempts from its sanctions the diamonds produced by government-owned or sanctioned mines, even if these mines violate human rights.

In 2001 Amnesty International reported that while the richest diamond mine in the Congo, in which De Beers had a minority interest, was a scene of frequent murders, maiming and illegal imprisonment, its diamonds were sold as ‘conflict-free’ under the Kimberley process since the mine was not run by ‘rebels’. Sierra Leonean diamonds are now also said to be clean – but in March 2003 the UN reported that a major effort still needed to be put into ‘stemming the extensive use of children as labour in [its] diamond mines’.

The Kimberley Process so far has no independent monitoring and most conflict diamonds are simply not being intercepted. There is nothing to stop a determined group wanting to market conflict diamonds – as al-Qaeda discovered when it joined in this illegal trade, attracted by its easy and secret profits.6

The Kimberley Process has at least introduced the notion of ethical trading into the diamond market. The next step must be an independently monitored Kimberley Process Two that certifies diamonds, no matter who produces them, only if they come from a mine that can prove it has followed an agreed ethical code in the mining and marketing of its diamonds.

Amnesty has asked the international community ‘to lobby for the international system of diamond certification agreed through the Kimberley Process to become an effective mechanism by which to monitor the human rights record of all actors in the international diamond trade’. Only if such ideas are put into place can consumers really be guaranteed that their diamonds are not tainted.

Janine Roberts is author of Glitter and Greed: the secret world of the diamond cartel, Disinformation Press, New York, 2003, and producer of the 1994 BBC investigative film series shot in six continents, ‘The Diamond Empire’.

  1. US State Department memo headed ‘Congo Diamond Deal’, 2 August 1961.
  2. Related by John Stockwell, former Head of CIA Angolan Taskforce, in his work In Search of Enemies, New York, Norton and Co. 1978; see also Janine Roberts, Glitter and Greed, New York 2003, pp. 217-219.
  3. Also see De Beers’ newsletter, Namaqualand Mines Chronicle, September 1994. Also Glitter and Greed pp. 4-11.
  4. E Oppenheimer to Diamond Producers Association, 7 December 1934. Glitter and Greed pp. 89-90, 223-4.
  5. Human Rights Watch, Victims and Witnesses 24 July 2001.
  6. Report by the Panel of Experts to the United Nations on Sierra Leone, October 2001. Also Dan Eggan and Kathleen Day, ‘US Probe of September 11 Funding Wraps up Terror Money Traced Via ATM Credit Card Usage’, Washington Post, 7 January 2001. Also Glitter and Greed pp. 1-4

New Internationalist issue 367 magazine cover This article is from the May 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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