Blood Diamonds: More than a Humanitarian Crisis?
Diamonds have captivated us for centuries. In spectacular rings and sparkling crowns, these clear-colored stones have put forth an impressive display of nature in its most refined form. No longer reserved for the ultra-rich, diamonds are now part of a commercial industry worth an estimated US $64 billion annually (Linde et al, 2021). Behind the dazzling display in store fronts and magazines, however, is a solemn reminder of the challenges present in the diamond industry. Diamond mining has been linked to human rights violations in war-torn countries for decades (Howard, 2015). This is no better represented than in Africa- where the emergence of Blood Diamonds in the 1990s brought international attention to the brutalities of rebel run mining operations. Yet even though the human atrocities of Blood Diamonds reached our collective conscience, the environmental consequences of diamond mining have not. In this article, we will explore how the exploitation of diamonds is interlinked with the exploitation of people, and to a greater extent – the environment. We will moreover reflect on strategies used to overcome Blood Diamonds and address the role of environmental initiatives for achieving sustainability in the diamond industry.
Diamond Mining in Africa: History and Scope
Diamond mining in Africa is relatively new. In fact, prior to the 19th century, diamonds were only found in Brazil and India (Shigley, 2017). It wasn’t until the late 1800s that Africa’s mining potential was realized through the unexpected discovery of a 21-carat diamond along the Orange River in Hopetown, South Africa (Shigley, 2017). Subsequent to this discovery, Sierra Leone, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were also recognized as fertile mining grounds. Of the estimated 90 million carats of raw diamonds mined each year worldwide, an estimated 47% now originate from Africa (Garside, 2020). Although serving as the central source of raw diamonds, however, Africa is only a small part of the global supply chain (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). The transformation of rough-cut stones to storefront jewelry is a costly and time-consuming process. The process usually begins with the extraction of diamonds from small “artisanal” or large-scale mining operations in areas tens to hundreds of kilometers square. This is usually achieved using pickaxes, bulldozers, and water hoses to search through mineral pockets-termed kimberlite pipes – for mud covered diamonds (Rudnicka et al, 2010). These deposits can be near the surface or deep under the earth’s crust. If showing good color and clarity, the raw stones are then sold to local mineral traders who polish, cut, and refine the diamond(s) for direct sale to government-affiliated buying offices (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). Once graded and tested, the diamonds are usually exported to major trading hubs in India (Surat), the United States, and or Hong Kong, which make up over 50% of global imports (Garside, 2020). The gems are then set into jewelry and sold direct to customer or through wholesale. It is thought that a single diamond passes through a dozen hands, and travels across over 3 boarders in its journey from mining to final sale (“The complete diamond…”, 2017). As such, the diamond industry interconnects countries and people in a global context. As we will discuss in later sections, this cooperation has been essential- and will continue to be important- for the structuring and management of the diamond industry.
The Blood Diamond- or conflict diamond– was a term coined by the United Nations to describe the sale of diamonds to fuel and sustain forces opposed to legitimate government() (“Blood diamond..”, 2016). Africa has been bitterly embroiled in civil conflict for most of modern history (Rudnicka et al, 2010). Two such examples were the political upheaval experienced by Angola and Sierra Leone in the post-colonial era (“The Angolan Civil War…”, 2011). The destabilization of government led to the emergence of prominent power regimes, including both the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the 1990s. Operating illegally, UNITA and RUF rebels used funds from diamond mining to buy weapons and ammunition to fuel their violent political agenda(s) (“Blood diamond..”, 2016). Murder, rape, and mutilations were commonplace; children and adults were forced to work in mines under dangerous conditions with little pay. This systemic abuse left over 1 million people displaced, with 75,000 dead in Sierra Leone alone (Polgreen, 2007). Consequently, despite having tremendous diamond reserves, much of Africa remained impoverished- making less than $1 US per day (Howard, 2015). It was not until the famous 1998 Global Witness exposé, “A Rough Trade- The Role of Companies in Fueling the Angolan Conflict” that the magnitude of this issue was comprehended by the public. At its peak, the Blood Diamond trade made up an estimated 15% of the global diamond market- some of which were thought to end up with popular vendors like Bulgari and Tiffany & Co (Polgreen, 2007). This article drew attention to the challenges present in the diamond industry- and led to the realization that the exploitation of diamonds was the exploitation of people, and that the ever-increasing consumer demand in developed countries was a driver of this process. Starting in 2003, The Kimberly Process was developed to eradicate the sale of blood diamonds (Howard, 2015). This United Nations (UN) directed initiative sparked efforts to place controls within the diamond supply chain. It also led to heightened public awareness about diamond mining and raised questions about the environmental impacts of Africa’s exploitative practices. It was only then, after reckoning with the humanitarian crisis, that the environment was viewed as yet another victim of the nations’ corrupt political scheme(s).
Figure 1: Raw Diamonds, diamond mine in Angola, and Map of Diamond Production (Kimberly Process)
Left: Raw diamonds with a human hand to scale. Right: small-scale diamond mine in Angola (Kedem et al, 2021), and Bottom: map illustrating diamond producing countries, affiliation with conflict or “Blood Diamonds” and involvement with smuggling. Here, smuggling refers to the export of diamonds that do not comply with the Kimberly Process (Baker, 2015).
Blood Diamonds are more than a humanitarian crisis- they are an environmental . Systematic exploitation of mineral reserves without remediation efforts have transformed landscapes into moonscapes- outstripped of wildlife and vegetation. According to Chimonyo et ., nearly 1/3 of all active African mining operations are located in ecosystems and watersheds of high ecological value (Chimonyo et al., 2013). The excavation of these areas has been linked to habitat loss and the disruption of migratory routes for rare bird and animal species (Chimonyo et al., 2013). A 2020 report by Galli et . revealed that up to 18% of deforestation in Sierra Leone occurred exclusively in diamond mining areas (Galli et al., 2020). This stark statistic has been implicated in the widespread loss biodiversity observed in the Kono region of Eastern Sierra Leone (Wadsworth & Lebbie, 2019). Uncontrolled mining practices have also led to the dumping of waste rock (tailings) into basins and pits, some of which leach harmful chemicals into the soil. Kimberlite tailings usually contain manganese, iron ore, and calcium- but in some cases, may contain elevated levels of toxic metals and radioactive nuclides (Van Rensburg & Maboeta, 2004). Concernedly, dumping sites are known sources of water and soil contamination, and have been cited as potent disruptors of the food chain (Van Rensburg & Maboeta, 2004). These effects are exacerbated by the apparent “flexibility” of zoning and land use regulations. Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) is an ongoing problem in Africa (Mascia et al, 2013). There have been several accounts of downgrading nature reserves to accommodate mining operations. Two such examples are Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, and the Mount Namibia Biosphere Reserve (World Heritage site); the latter of which experienced a 1500-hectare reduction to accommodate expanded mining operations (Chimonyo et al., 2013). In addition to the ecologic losses in uncontrolled mining operations, there are profound implications for water quality and access. Extracting diamonds requires large amounts of running water. As such, water is often siphoned from nearby rivers and human settlements. This not only compromises water access, but also poses significant health hazards due to the presence of silt and mineral residues in wells and reservoirs (Chimonyo et al, 2013). Taken together, these findings suggest that the impacts of diamond mining extend beyond the humanitarian realm. Uncontrolled extraction, disposal, and zoning regulations in diamond mining threatens the stability of local ecosystems and settlements. In the next section of this article, we will explore the actions that are being taken to generate a more sustainable and ethical diamond industry.
Sustainable Diamond Mining: A Holistic Endeavor
Blood Diamonds triggered a realization that the diamond industry needed to change. It was deemed unethical and fell (and presently falls) short of environmental sustainability goals. In response to these issues, ethical consumerism emerged as an important priority and new policies were developed. The Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was a pioneering initiative that sought to control the supply chain and prevent the sale of blood diamonds. Spearheaded by the United Nations and over 20 participant countries, the Kimberly Process enforced legislation on the import, export, and sale of ethically sourced diamonds (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). With over 80 countries presently involved, the Kimberly Process has accomplished near-complete eradication of Blood Diamonds in the global market (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). KPCS is a prominent example of international collaboration for a humanitarian cause. Progress has also been made on the environmental front, where the formation of Environmental Management Agencies (EMAs) and Impact Assessment Forms (EIAs) have enforced stricter sustainability practices (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). These initiatives have led to investments in cleaner mining technology, employee-employer education, and land reclamation efforts- all of which aim to combat the ecologic impacts of diamond production (Mattheysen & Clarkson, 2013). Governments have also worked alongside activist groups to promote wildlife preservation in at-risk areas. A prominent example was the formation of Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone due to the combined efforts of the Governmental Forestry Division and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in 2011 (“Sierra Leone’s..”, 2019). Known to house rare species of birds, butterflies, and elephants, the Gola National Park remains a crown jewel of Sierra Leone’s conservation efforts. At the consumer end of the supply chain, many jewelry companies have also pledged to responsibly source and sell their diamonds. One such example is Tiffany & Co’s dedication to “reducing environmental impacts, respecting human rights, and complying with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” (Linde et al, 2022). This pledge has been met with new certification processes and largescale supply chain restructuring (Linde et al, 2022). Other brands, like Italy’s Bulgari and France’s Cartier are following suit. With only 5% of Africa’s mineral deposits thought to be discovered, our commitment to sustainable diamond mining is as important as ever. Although it is a slow process- changes in policy and governance give reason to believe that a truly ethical industry is taking shape.
Although tragic to recount, Blood Diamonds made important contributions to the diamond industry. The association between blood diamonds and human rights abuses dramatically altered the consumer experience. Once thought of as a standalone product, diamonds are now viewed as a complex entity with both ethical and environmental impacts. Through turmoil and bloodshed, Blood Diamonds have educated us on the meaning of exploitation- and proved that it is not a term reserved for diamonds alone. But rather, as we have observed, that exploitation of people and the environment occur too. The success of international policies like the Kimberly Process suggests that a truly ethical diamond industry may be achievable in the future. With sustained efforts both domestically and abroad, this seems like a plausible outcome. As once famously said by diamond company De Beers in 1941- “diamonds are forever”- indeed, we should hope the same is true of our sustainability efforts.
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