Death by diamonds: How the engagement ring industry is destroying lives and the environment in West Africa

Clelia Frondaroli | Head of Comment

Twenty years on from Sierra Leone’s brutal and devastating civil war, the diamond industry maintains that reforms such as the Kimberley Process have ensured similar conflicts over diamonds have not been repeated. Yet, these ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds as they are known, continue to circulate the global market, endangering numerous lives and destroying many others.

Africa is home to 65% of the world’s rough diamond industry, with the majority of mineral-rich rocks located across Central and West Africa. Although the industry employs around 2 million people within these regions alone, it has also acted as the catalyst to severe civil conflicts where governments and militia groups alike have attempted to fight for control over the lucrative diamond reserves. Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war in 1991 was a direct example of this where the Rebel United Front (RUF) seized control over the mines and used profits from smuggled diamonds to fund arms and military supplies. The resulting consequences of this war, with over 75,000 casualties and numerous acts of brutality committed against its citizens, led to the creation of the Kimberley Process in 2000. The implementation of diamond ‘passports’ certifying every rough diamond, was one of the main policies to arise from this and was designed to ensure that every diamond had a conflict-free origin.

However, the Kimberley Process contains numerous flaws that have left it vulnerable to being breached regularly. Under the Kimberly process, conflict diamonds are understood to be precious stones that are used to fund rebel organisations. However, this one definition has failed to take into account a wider scope for conflict, meaning that when governments themselves are involved in committing crimes to obtain diamonds, those diamonds could still be classed as conflict-free. This can be seen in Angola, where government soldiers have been regularly killing and maiming miners yet, under the current definition, the Kimberley process has been unable to warrant this as grounds to class them as blood diamonds. Furthermore, the Kimberley Process does not take into account child labour and human rights abuses. Over one million diamond miners in Sierra Leone earn less than one dollar a day and in Angola, 46% of miners are between the ages of 5-16, where they are subjected to long working hours with little to no safety measures in place. Despite the Kimberley Process claiming that 99% of their diamonds are conflict-free (which itself holds false implications), there is no guarantee that those same diamonds are ethically and sustainably sourced.

The Kimberley Process has also overlooked the mass environmental degradation that has taken place as a result of diamond mining. Open pit mining requires the complete removal of topsoil, leading to soil erosion, deforestation and the contamination of natural bodies of water. Although several companies maintain that mining diamonds is sustainable, it is no different to other forms of mining, all of which are detrimental to the planet.

It is true to say that the diamond industry has come a long way in terms of attempting to end the exportation of conflict diamonds however the past two decades have come to show that the ethical and environmental implications of diamond mining have not gone away.

Image by Kim Alaniz Via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.


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