"Every stone tells a story" but whose story?


A glittering diamond arrests the attention of London’s underground commuters: the image of the Cullinan Diamond, second largest ever discovered, gleaming in the golden Sovereign’s Sceptre. The gem showcased on the poster entices onlookers to visit the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London with the enchanting phrase: “Every stone tells a story”.

However, another interpretation of this diamond’s story is one of colonial exploitative profit. Discovered in 1905 in a South African mine, supposedly by Frederick Wells, this jewel, although christened the “Star of Africa”, is not the shining pride of its homeland but instead of an imperialist power.

The diamond, named after Thomas Cullinan, the mine’s owner and profiteer, was placed in the crown of King Edward VII in 1907. Since then it has been a British national treasure that continues to generate revenue as a tourist attraction.

This story of imperialist gain at the expense of a native land and its peoples is one common to the continent. After four centuries of enslaving Africans, European powers squabbled to take control of their vast and often precious natural resources in the late 1800s “Scramble for Africa”.

Although African nations won independence after WWII, the holds of colonial capitalism remained. The sobering modern reality is that exploitation of the continent’s resources and its peoples still exists, driven now by global market demand and local warring groups.

De Beers, the tycoon of the diamond trade who rakes in $6b in annual sales, has been in the thick of the controversial industry since 1888. Today although it only has 20% interest in diamond mines in Africa, it is said to control up to 80% of the market.

Recently, human rights groups accused the South African company of buying ‘blood diamonds’ used to finance rebel wars. In addition, in 2004, De Beers pleaded guilty to charges of price-fixing rough diamonds and paid a $10m fine as compensation.

After this scandal, De Beers allegedly turned clean and are now touted as leaders in ethical sourcing, but the company is just one player in a complex web where diamonds instigate or fund bloody battles.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRF), Liberia, and Sierra Leone, an estimated 3.7m people have died in diamond-fuelled conflicts, according to Amnesty International. But while Leonardo DiCaprio’s film and Kanye West’s rap popularized “blood diamonds”, conflict gems are not the only human rights injustice feeding the industry.

From the mines of Africa to the cutting factories of India, a diamond’s journey to the high street is paved with the exploited and often forced labour of the world’s poorest, including children.

65 percent of diamonds originate in African countries, with hotspots being South Africa and the DRC. The unjust reality is that although the product is one of the highest valued on the planet, diamond miners are some of the most impoverished people on it.

An estimated one million diamond diggers in Africa earn less than one dollar a day, well below the extreme poverty line. As a result, masses of miners and their families lack basic necessities such as running water, and diseases like HIV and STDs are rampant in their communities.

Life is hard enough for those who choose to mine, but all too often miners have no choice in the matter. The US Department of Labour 2012 report revealed that forced labour was prominent in the industry. Male miners are often paid in food, tools, or housing, but not money, while females are trafficked into camps for sexual exploitation.

Children are also the victims of forced labour in at least seven African countries, according to the same report. One survey of diamond miners in Angola found that almost half of miners were between the ages of 5 and 16. Children are used to do menial tasks or to access small, dangerous spaces into which adult miners can’t fit, making them even more vulnerable to physical risks.

On the other side of the world, those who work in the next step of diamond production hardly fare better.

92 percent of the world's diamonds are cut and polished in Surat, an industrial city in western India. Although the industry sustains close to 500,000 jobs in the city, employees earn on average 2 dollars a day, a wage on the verge of extreme poverty.

That is if they are paid at all. Forced and child labour also exist in India’s diamond factories: the International Labour Organization estimates that at least 20,000 Indian children cut and polish diamonds in hazardous conditions.

Across the world, diamonds are produced from extreme poverty, physical pain, or violent conflict in order to be sold on the high streets of Western cities – an injustice that not everyone accepts at face value.

Activists have taken up arms against the diamond industry, led by watchdogs like Global Witness, whose investigative report in 1998 spurred on the formation of the Kimberley Process in 2003.

The multinational Kimberley Process seeks to stem the flow of conflict-diamonds through sanctions legislating the jewel trade. The group has received both praise – for reducing the amount of diamonds from conflict countries from 15% in the 1990s to less than 1% in 2010 – and also criticism.

Activists criticize that the Kimberley Process only focuses on conflict-free diamonds, and not other human rights abuses, in gem production, and argues that they’re not altogether effective in doing even that.

In particular, the Kimberley Process garnered censure for their recent decision to lift sanctions on diamonds mined from Zimbabwe’s Marange fields. Marange was the scene of a military-sanctioned massacre in 2008, during which 200 local miners were beaten and killed after they refused to mine for the government.

After controversially allowing diamond exports following this injustice, Global Witness, the same organization that helped form the coalition, pulled out of the Kimberley Process. They said:

Due to the weaknesses in the Kimberley Process, and the lack of self-regulation by the diamond industry, it is still very difficult for consumers to know if they are buying a ‘clean’ diamond...there are still significant weaknesses in the scheme that undermine its effectiveness and allow the trade in blood diamonds to continue."

De Beers and other premier diamond companies now promise ethical sourcing of their precious gems – but as Global Witness said, it’s hard to know for sure. And while blood diamonds may be becoming a thing of the past, economic, environmental, and human rights injustices are still pervasive in the global diamond industry.

Just like the colonialists gained from the “Star of Africa” at the expense of Africans, wealthy capitalists and powerful warlords are still profiting from the pain and poverty of local labourers. So the next time you walk by the Tube ad for the Crown Jewels or the jewellery shop at that must have diamond, we should perhaps pause and think, what was the human price and for this precious gems?

Worth a watch: from NBC news: "Diamond's Journey" http://www.nbcnews.com/id/15842522/2#.UpXTLkqQRrMI

Mallory Moench