Friday, December 15, 2006
Blood Diamonds Part 1: The Empire Strikes Back! by James S. Henry
"...(O)ne of the great dramas of Africa: extremely rich areas are reduced to theaters of misery...."
-- Rafael Marques, Angolan journalist (July 2006)
"For each $9 of rough diamonds sold abroad, our customers, after cutting them, collect something like $56..."
-- Sandra Vasconcelos, Endiama (2005)
"We found the Kalahari clean. For years and years the Bushman have lived off the land....thousands of years...We did not buy the Kalahari. God gave it to us. He did not loan it to us. He gave it to us. Forever. I do not speak in anger, because I am not angry. But I want the freedom that we once had."
-- Bushman, Last Voice of an Ancient Tongue, Ulwazi Radio, 1997
The global diamond industry, led by giants like De Beers, RTZ, BHP Bililton, and Alrosa Co Ltd., Russia's state-owned diamond company, a handful of aggressive independents like Israel's Lev Leviev, Beny Steinmetz's BSG Group, and Daniel Gertier's DGI, a hundred other key "diamantaires" in New York, Ramat-Gan, Antwerp, Dubai, Mumbai, and Hong Kong, and leading "diamond industry banks" like ABN-AMRO, is not exactly renowned for its abiding concern about the welfare of the millions of diamond miners, cutters, polishers, and their families who live in developing countries.
But the industry -- whose top five corporate members still control more than 80 percent of the 160 million carets that are produced and sold each year into the $70 billlion world-wide retail diamond jewelry market -- certainly does have an undeniable long-standing concern for its own product's image.
Indeed, for decades, observers of the diamond industry have warned that it was teetering on the brink of a price collapse, because the industry's prosperity has been based on a combination of artificial demand and equally-artificial -- but often more unstable -- control over supply.
Most of the doomsayers have always predicted that the inevitable downfall, when it came, would arrive from the supply side, in the form of some major new diamond find that produced a flood of raw diamonds onto the global market.
The precise culprits, in turn, were expected to be artificial diamonds (in the 1960s and 1970s), "an avalanche of Australian diamonds" (in the 1980s,) and Russian diamonds (in the 1990s.)
This supply-side pessimism has lately been muted, given the failure of the earlier predictions and the fact that raw diamond prices -- though not, buyers beware, retail diamond resale prices!! -- have recently increased at a hefty 10-12 percent per year. There is also some evidence that really big "kimberlite mines" are becoming harder and harder to find.
However, there are still an awful lot of raw diamonds out there waiting to found, and one does still hear warnings about the long-overpredicted Malthusian glut, now from new sources like deep mines in Angola, Namibia's offshore fields, Gabon, Zambia, and the Canadian Northwest.
THE REAL THREAT?
Meanwhile, the other key threat to the industry's artificial price structure -- where retail prices are at least 7 to 10 times the cost of raw diamonds -- comes from the demand side. This is the concern that diamonds may lose the patina of glamour, rarity and respectability that the industry has carefully cultivated since the 1940s.
It is therefore not surprising that the industry has been deeply disturbed by the December 8, 2006, release of Blood Diamond, a block-buster Hollywood film that stars Leonard DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, and Djinmon Hounsou.
While extraordinarily violent and a bit too long, the film is entertaining, mildly informative, and far from "foolish" -- the sniff that it received from one snide NYT reviewer -- who clearly knew nothing about the subject matter, other than, perhaps, the fact that the Times' own Fortunoff- and Tiffany-laden ad department didn't care for the film.
Indeed, this film does provide the most critical big-screen view to date of the diamond industry's sordid global track record, not only in Africa, but also in Brazil, India, Russia, and, indeed, Canada and Australia, where diamonds have often been used to finance civil wars, corruption, and environmental degradation, and indigenous peoples often been pushed aside to make room for the industry's priorities.
Surely the film is a
small offset to decades of the diamond cartel's shameless exploitation of Hollywood films, leading ladies like Marilyn Monroe, Elisabeth Taylor, and Lauren Bacall, and scores of supermodels, rock stars, and impresarios.
INDUSTRY WHITE WASH
Dismayed at the potential negative impact of the film ever since the industry first learned about Blood Diamond in late 2005, it is reportedly spending at least an extra $15 million on a PR campaign that responds to the film -- in addition to the $200 million per year that the World Diamond Council already spends on regular marketing.
For example, if you Google "blood diamonds," for example, you'll see that the industry has purchased top billing for its own version of the "facts" regarding this film. Always eager for a new marketing angle, some diamond merchants have also seized the opportunity to pitch their own product lines as "conflict diamond - free."
DEF JAM'S BLACK WASH
This shameless PR campaign has also included a "black wash" effort by the multimillionaire hip hop impresario Russell Simmons, who launched his own diamond jewelry line by way of the Simmons Jewelry Co. in 2004, in partnershp with long-time New York diamond dealer M. Fabrikant & Sons.
Simmons, who admits to "making a lot of money by selling diamonds," rushed back to New York on December 6 from a whirlwind nine-day private jet tour of diamond mines in South Africa and Botswana -- but, admittedly, not in conflict-ridden Sierre Leone, Angola, the Congo, the Ivory Coast or Chad.
Simmons was originally scheduled to travel with one of his latest flames, the 27-year old Czech supermodel and Fortunoff promoter, Petra Nemcova. But Petra reportedly preferred to stay home and accept a huge diamond engagement ring of her own from British singer/soldier James Blunt, whose 2005 pop hit "You're Beautiful" was recently nominated the "fourth most annoying thing in Britain," next to cold-callers, queue-jumpers, and caravans.
The timing of Simmons' trip, which he filmed for UUtube, just happened to coincide with the December 8 release of the Warner Brothers feature.
Upon his return, Simmons held a press conference, accompanied by his estranged wife Kimora Lee Simmons and Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Mohammed, a former civil rights activitist and fellow investor in the jewelry company who is perhaps best remembered for being fired as NAACP Director in 1994 after settling a costly sexual harassment suit, and for joining the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Nation of islam. Simmons' astounding conclusion from his wonder-tour: "Bling isn't so bad."
Whatever the credibility of Simmons and his fellow instant experts, it was evidently not enough to save M. Fabricant & Sons, which filed for Chapter 11 in November.
THE GODS MUST (STILL) BE CRAZY
Simmons managed to tour a few major diamond mines on his African safari, but apparently he lacked time to examine the contentious land dispute between the Kalahari San Bushmen,
the members of one of Africa's oldest indigenous groups, and the Botswana
Government -- with the diamond industry's influence lurking right offstage.
In the 1990s, after diamond deposits were reportedly discovered on the Bushmen's traditional lands, the Botwana Government -- which owns 15 percent of De Beers, is a 50-50 partner with De Beers in the Debswana diamond venture, the largest diamond producer in Africa, and derives half its revenue from diamond mining -- has pressured the Bushmen to leave their tribal lands.
The methods used were not subtle. To force the Bushmen into resettlement camps outside the Reserve, the Botswana Government closed schools and clinics, cut off water supplies, and subjected members of the group to threats, beatings, and other forms of intimidation for hunting on their own land -- all of it ordained by F.G. Mogae, Botswana's President, who declared in February 2005 that he 'could not allow the Bushmen to return to the Kalahari." Those who have been resettled have been living in destitution, without jobs and little to do except drink. (See a recent BBC video on the subject.)
Thankfully, on December 13, 2006, Botswana's High Court ruled that in 2002, more than 1000 Bushmen had been illegally evicted by the Botswana Government from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where they'd lived for 30,000 years.
The Botswana Attorney General has already attempted to attached strict conditions to the ruling, so this struggle is far from over. But at least the first prolonged legal battle has been won -- thanks to the determination of the Bushmen, public-spirited lawyers like Gordon Bennett, their legal counsel, courageous crusaders like Professor Kenneth Good, and NGOs like Survival International, which has supported the legal battle.
In the wake of this decision, as usual, the global diamond industry, led by De Beers, has denied that any responsibility whatsoever for the displacement of the Bushmen.
However, the fact is that De Beers and other companies has been prospecting actively in the Kalahari Reserve, especially around the Bushman community of Gope (see this video), where De Beers has falsely claimed that no Bushmen were living when it started mining. It has actively opposed recognizing the rights of indigeneous peoples in Africa. In 2002, at the time of the eviction, Debswana's Managing Director -- appointed by De Beers -- commented that "The government was justified in removing the Basarwa (Bushmen)….’.
De Beers' behavior in Botswana has so outraged activists that they have joined together with prominent actors like Julie Christie and several Nemcova-like supermodels who used to appear in De Beers ads, in an appeal for people to boycott the now-UK-based giant -- which has lately been trying to move downstream into retail diamonds.
However, De Beers is far from alone in this effort. Indeed, as has often been the case with "conflict diamonds," less well-known foreign companies have been permitted to do much of the nastier pioneering.
In Botswana's case, these have included Vancouver-based Motapa Diamonds and Isle of Jersey-based Petra Diamonds Ltd. both of which have have obtained licenses to explore and develop milliions of acres, including CKGR lands. Petra is not unfamiliar with "conflict diamonds;" it is perhaps best known for a failed 2000 attempt to invest in a $1 billion diamond project in the war-torn DR Congo, in which Zimbabwe's corrupt dicator, Robert Mugabe, reportedly held a 40 percent interest.
In the case of Botswana, in September 2005 Petra acquired the
country's largest single prospecting license -- covering 30,000 square
miles, nearly the size of Austria -- by purchasing Kalahari Diamonds Ltd, a company that was 20 percent owned by BHP Billiton and 10 percent by the World Bank/IFC
-- which apparently saw the sponsorship of CKGR mining as somehow
consistent with its own financial imperatives, if not its developmental
mission. (!!!). Petra has also licensed proprietary explorations
technology from BHP Billiton, and offered it development rights, a
front-runner for the Australian giant.
Meanwhile, at least 29 of the 239 Bushmen who filed the lawsuit have perished while living in settlement camps, waiting for the case to be decided, and many others are impoverished.
Perhaps the diamond industry's $15 million might be better spent simply helping these Bushmen return to their homes -- and also settling up with the Nama people in South Africa, the Intuit and Kree peoples in Canada, and the aborigines in Australia.
Meanwhile, as we'll examine in Part II, despite the "Kimberly Process" that was adopted by many -- but not all -- key diamond producers in 2003, the fact is that diamonds continue to pour out of conflict zones like the Congo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, providing the revenues that finance continuing bloodshed.
The industry's vaunted estimate that they account for just "1
percent" of total production is based on thin air -- there are so many loopholes
in the current transnational supply chain that there is just no way of
knowing. Of course, given the scale of the global industry, and the poverty of the countries involved, even a tiny percent of the global market can make a huge difference on the ground.
Furthermore, in cases like Angola, the Kimberly Process has provided an excuse for corrupt governments to team up with private security firms and diamond traders to crack down on independent alluvial miners.
Finally, the diamond industry still has much work to do on other fronts -- pollution, deforestation, and, most important, the task of creating a fairer division of the spoils, in an industry where the overwhelming share of value-added is still captured by just a handful of First World countries.
The objective here is not to kill the golden goose. In principal, the diamond industry should be able to reduce world inequality and poverty, since almost all retail buyers are relatively-affluent people in rich countries, while more than 80 percent of all retail diamonds come from poor countries.
But beyond eliminating traffic in "blood diamonds," however, we should also demand that this industry starts to redress its even more fundamental misbehaviors.