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Conflict Diamonds

Aired December 9, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


FEMI OKE, HOST: Hello, I'm Femi Oke. This is INSIDE AFRICA, your weekly look at life and news on the continent.
This week, it's all about diamonds, the lure, the mystery, the beauty and the violence these precious stones has spawned.. We'll take you from the diamond-rich region of Congo to the secret diamonds of Liberia, and we'll follow the trail of the infamous blood diamonds from African soil to glitzy jewelry stores, and yes, all the way to Hollywood.

We begin our journey in Africa, where some 65 percent of the world's diamonds are produced. But what should be a major asset has often been a mixed blessing. Over the decades, global demand for the stones has both fueled hate, financed wars, and created slave labor. Even today, as Jeff Koinange reports from the Congo, these beautiful gems often come with a shameful past.


JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At a bend in a tributary of the mighty Congo River, dirt-poor villagers feverishly pan for the shiny stones that have proved as elusive as they are rare: Diamonds. Hundreds stake their claims here, hoping to strike it rich in this, the forth largest diamond-producing country in the world. Last year alone, officials say, diamond exports from the Congo accounted for more than $2 billion, nearly one fifth of the country's GDP.

But what these villagers don't know or hardly care about is the fact that these are allegedly some of the precious stones that have, according to experts, indirectly fueled some of Africa's dirtiest wars, from Sierra Leone to Liberia and from Angola to here, in the Congo.

They're known as "conflict diamonds", or, more bluntly, "blood diamonds", and here, in this corner of the Congo, from boys to men it's a scramble to get the next big rock and a ticket out of poverty.

In order to get to Congo's rich diamond district, one has to fly to the town of Mbujimai (ph), at the center of this vast nation, then drive for about an hour and a half on roads that are little more than dirt tracks until you arrive at the village of Dipunba (ph), or rather it used to be a village. Now the entire landscape is pockmarked with holes the size of a water well, holes barely large enough for a man to squeeze into.

But squeeze they do, and villagers like 40-year old Jean-Pierre Mbenga arrive here at the crack of dawn along with his five-men team. They all play a role in this macabre scene, more Stone Age than space age. Their tools are simple: An old pick, a rope, a torn sack. No shoes on these men's feet, no gloves or hard hats. No flash-lights when they descend into the earth.

The conditions here can only be described as deplorable. Half the time it's raining, these men neither have the right clothes nor the right equipment. Jean-Pierre and his team have told us it's taken them more than two weeks to dig only 50 feet. And they say they may have to go another 50, and maybe even 50 after that. And at the end of the day, there's still no guarantee they'll be able to come up with the diamonds.

Jean-Pierre makes his way down into the tiny well, digging, loading, lifting and dumping. The shafts are deep, dark, cold and dangerous. The walls are unsecured, dangerously dug. Accidents are frequent, and many miners have been buried alive in these death pits.

And yet he knows he has to keep digging. After all, he has a wife and eight hungry mouths to feed at home, including a two-week old infant son.

"It's terrible here," he says. "All we do is work from morning to evening, and most of the time we come up empty. I can't think of a worst way to make a living."

Jean-Pierre, who has been digging for diamonds for more than two decades, tells me he once dug up a one-carat stone, which he sold for $500. He thought he had struck it rich, but by the time he had divided the earnings among his team and the men who's leased the land where he digs, he only managed to walk away with less than $50.

"That's the life of a miner here", he says. "We work and work until our hands bleed, and all we end up with is peanuts."

I asked Jean-Pierre who he sells his diamonds to. "Anyone," he says, "just as long as they have the money."

And that's exactly the problem legitimate diamond sellers and activists alike have been arguing for the last decade, calling for the curtailing of the sale of diamonds to militia leaders or warlords, who then trade the diamonds for arms to fuel Africa's endemic civil wars.

It happened in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, where up to 200,000 people were killed and tens of thousands had their limbs hacked off by rebels determined to take control of the country's rich diamond deposits.

Most of the Congo's diamonds are exported through a state-run company, but in the country that was taken over by one dictator after another for more than 40 years, experts say getting diamonds out of the Congo illegally has been an all-too common occurrence, leaving tens of thousands of Congolese like Jean-Pierre Mbenga poor and desperate.

On this day, he's come home empty-handed, to a family that hasn't eaten all day. He goes out and buys the only thing he can: A tiny loaf of bread, which eight hungry mouths devour in seconds.

Jean-Pierre knows he has to go back down into the shafts first thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. As long as there are precious stones beneath these soils, he's determined to find them, he tells us, no matter the cost, human and otherwise, or how long it takes.

Jeff Koinange, CNN, Mbujimai (ph), in central Congo.


OKE: In 2001, the United Nations banned all diamond exports from Liberia, accusing them of trading gems for guns to help fuel the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Today, the war is over, but the United Nations says Liberia's government must improve controls of its diamond industry before sanctions are lifted.

In the meantime, what happens to the miners who rely on diamonds for living? I went to Liberia to find out.


OKE: Mabong Thandiong (ph) village in west Liberia is sitting on a secret. Just behind these houses, the women hassle for gold and the men dig for diamonds, buried treasure for the taking. It's just hard work getting to it.

But the location isn't the secret. It's a diamond mining that's undercover.

LOMAX BOIMATI, DIAMOND MINER: We have sanctions on diamonds, and we are suffering in this country, there are no jobs. We just have to do this to survive.

OKE: Lomax Boimati and his mining friends know all about the Unites Nations ban on Liberia exporting diamonds. The sanctions, imposed in 2001, were intended to stop raw diamonds from fueling the country's civil war, which ended three years ago.

(on camera): Where did these ones come from, where? Up this river?


OKE: It's beautiful.

(voice over): The U.N. sanctions haven't stopped small scale miners from trying to make some money on the black market. It's a low-tech enterprise. Pick a location, dig a pit until you hit the gravel, wash the gravel, and then keep your fingers crossed.

(on camera): What is the name for this?


OKE: Sampa (ph). So, if you see any of this ...


OKE: ... then maybe there's diamonds in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, I got this and this, and over there.

OKE: Let me see your hand.


(voice over): Liberia's secret diamond miners don't usually chat to strangers. I had special access, thanks to Deputy Minister Alfred Fayia from the Land, Mines and Energy Ministry.

ALFRED FAYIA, DEP. MIN., LANDS AND MINES: What you see, you have to understand that in Liberia, in Liberia mining is a (inaudible) choice, a tradition. You never stop people from mining.

You know this - you know, these are little mining (inaudible), because they have to live.

OKE: Bookar Kanle (ph) lost both his parents in Liberia's civil war. He'd rather go to school than be a miner, but he has to eat. He says he sold his last diamond for $2 U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can get my chicken soup, buy rice, bananas and food for me to eat. I don't get money to get rich.

OKE: The miners are working for subsistence payments, because they're selling diamonds on the black market in Monrovia. Without sanctions, Bookar (ph) would be a lot wealthier.

Ambassador Ellen Loj is the chair of the U.N. Security Council's Committee for Liberian Sanctions.

AMBASSADOR ELLEN LOJ, U.N. COMMITTEE ON SANCTIONS: There is no doubt about it, the aim of the Security Council is to lift the sanctions as quickly as possible, but also to be sure that when we do it, the income benefits the Liberian government and the Liberian people and not some illegal activities.

OKE: Liberia's diamond sanctions will be reviewed before the end of this year. In the meantime, a group of (inaudible) miners continue to work illegally.

(on camera): Is there anything in that? Is there anything in there? Good luck.


OKE: A nice group of guys. In fact, the question I got asked the most when I got back to Atlanta was did I bring back a diamond? Absolutely not, it's illegal!

Now, the government of Liberia is currently working to develop its mining industry. There are plans for miners to be organized into co-ops, earning a fair wage and having access to better equipment. Of course, all this has to happen once the sanctions are lifted.

Now, amidst the misery, it is important to note that diamonds do create substantial good. The revenue created by the legitimate diamond trade helps fund both health care, education, AIDS prevention and many other programs across the continent. In Botswana, for example, diamonds account for a reported 80 percent of the country's exports, making it one of Africa's fastest growing economies and funding education for children on a national level.

In countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Tanzania, the diamond industry is helping better health care in the workplace and in communities. And in Namibia, diamonds are reportedly helping to bring real improvement, such as schoolbooks and electricity, to the people.

When we come back, recognizing the good from the bad. How do you know whether or not you're buying a conflict diamonds? We'll tell you what the diamond industry is doing to reassure the conscientious consumer. Stay with us.


OKE: Good to see you again, you're watching INSIDE AFRICA. Today, we're focusing on the infamous blood diamond trade. Here's a look at what the international community is doing to stop it.


OKE: In 2002, industry executives joined forces with governments around the world to stop conflict diamonds from reaching the global marketplace. They named their scheme the Kimberley Process Certification, after the diamond-mining town in South Africa where their first meeting was held. The body, which consists of more than 45 governments plus the European Union, imposes regulation in an effort to guarantee conflict-free diamonds.

Members are asked only to trade with each other, to inspect each other, and to certify every shipment of rough diamonds as conflict-free.


OKE: Now, because of the Kimberley Process, the diamond industry's lobby says conflict diamonds now account for less than 1 percent of the diamond trade. But while illegal trade may be close to being stumped out, many say there is still a lot to be done. Earlier, we spoke to Vivienne Walt, who has just returned from Sierra Leone. She wrote about her experiences in "Fortune" magazine's cover article, "Diamonds Aren't Forever".


VIVIENNE WALT: Once you're on the ground in that region, there is basically rampant illegal diamond mining, diamond digging and diamond trading, for that matter. There's rampant smuggling, and it's so overt that quite clearly nobody is particularly worried about being caught.

And in the back alleys every evening, there is just a lot of illegal trading. People will show up with diamonds that they've dug out of the rivers, and they'll often carry them in their mouths because it's regarded as the safest place to keep them. And they'll take them out of their mouth, and there'll be one guy who sits under the tree who will be designated as that day's trader, and he'll look at every diamond, and with his fairly experienced eye, be able to tell right away what the carat is, what the clarity is. Sometimes he'll pull out a little jeweler's magnifying glass, but sometimes not. And right away he'll strike a deal, and he'll take up this big wad of notes, banknotes from his pockets, and peel off a few notes, and off the guy will go.

And this is really kind of like village entertainment every afternoon. You get a crowd of kids milling around, and people sort of seeing what that day's trading is like. It's kind of like being in a market place anywhere in West Africa, except this is completely illegal, and they're trading diamonds, which eventually will wind up in the U.S. or in Europe or in Tokyo, for that matter.

OKE: I was in Liberia a few months ago, and somebody came up and showed me a handful of raw diamonds and my mouth dropped open. Did you see any diamonds on your trip, and what was - what was your response to see them just sort of out there in the raw?

WALT: You know, I saw quite a lot of diamonds. I mean, certainly, you just hand around the back streets, and you see lots of diamonds, and fairly sizeable ones too. If you saw them on somebody's finger, you would say, wow, quite a rock!

But it did kind of stop and make me think that, you know, we -we talk about engagement rings, we - we think of diamonds as being kind of a symbol of love, and that it really was just a very disturbing sort of this juncture between the reality of a region where the diamonds come from and the reality of the people who ultimately wear them.


OKE: And if you would like to know more about Vivienne's trip, you can pick up her article on newsstands now.

With a new and increased spotlight on the issue, dealers are doing everything they can to ease any concerned customers. Ali Velshi reports from New York.


ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Someone asks you where you got your diamond, they probably want to know where you bought it.

RONNIE VANDERLINDEN, PRESIDENT, DIAMEX INC.: The country of origin when it comes to polish doesn't really make a difference. It's really not important where that diamond comes from.

VELSHI: Unless, of course, you're worried about buying what's called "a conflict diamond" -- rough diamonds traded for arms in African civil wars. Conflict diamonds aren't the problem they once were, because of worldwide pressure on the diamond industry and the industry's own efforts. But Canada, now the world's third largest diamond producer, thinks increased attention to this issue will cause at least some customers to intentionally buy conflict-free.

BOB GANNICOTT, CEO., ABER DIAMOND CORP.: We want to be in the forefront of that, not trailing behind it. So even though the customer may not be particularly interested yet, we are very interested, and we take great care in that respect.

VELSHI: Bob Gannicott runs Aber Diamond Corporation, one of Canada's major diamond miners. His company recently moved into the retail diamond business.

GANNICOTT: We want to be the world's best, most authoritative diamond jeweler.

VELSHI: And how exactly does one make the move from diamond miner to diamond jeweler? By buying one of the most storied names in jewelry: Harry Winston, the venerable New York institution immortalized by movies like "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Harry Winston still buys quality diamonds wherever it can, but says conflict-free is now part of its mantra.

(on camera): Does the person who comes in to drop top dollar on diamond jewelry at Harry Winston give a hoot?

GANNICOTT: Some do. And certainly, we give a hoot. The point is we - we make it our business to protect ourselves from what will undoubtedly become a bigger issue in the future than it is today.

VELSHI (voice over): Whether conflict diamonds become a bigger issue is yet to be seen. During the height of the diamond-fueled conflicts in Africa the last 30 years, jewelry buyers rarely asked where a diamond came from. Not that most jewelers were likely to know the answer anyway.

Ali Velshi, CNN, New York.


OKE: Thanks, Ali. When INSIDE AFRICA returns ...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hopefully, people see the film, they'll be inspired to shop if they're going to -- chose to wear - to purchase diamonds, they'll want to buy them -- that are conflict-free.


OKE: The town known for showcasing many an elaborate diamond on the red carpet takes on the issue. Up next, a trip to Hollywood. See you on the other side.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It came from the heart of the earth - a stone so rare, men will do anything to possess it.


OKE: That was a scene from the trailer of the movie "Blood Diamond," set to release this weekend in the United States and next month in Europe. The film is just one of several upcoming features to tackle the issue of conflict diamonds. Sibila Vargas has more from Hollywood.


JENNIFER CONNELLY, ACTRESS: People back home wouldn't buy a ring if they knew it cost someone else their hand.

SIBILA VARGAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In "Blood Diamond," Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays an American magazine journalist who challenges Leonardo DiCaprio's character, an African smuggler who's in search of a rare diamond that he hopes will make him rich.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, ACTOR: Who do you think buys the stones that I bring out? Dreamy American girls who all want a storybook wedding and a big shiny rock. Just like the ones they see in the advertisements of your politically correct magazine. So please, don't come here to make judgments on me, all right?

VARGAS: The film is set in war-torn Sierra Leone in the '90s, a time when more than 4 percent of all African diamonds were sold on the black market.

CONNELLY: Depending on the source of the diamonds you're considering, your money could end up funding something you would never imagine - a deadly civil war.

VARGAS: Connelly not only stars in "Blood Diamond," but is lending her face to a PSA for Amnesty International, educating people about conflict stones that are traded for cash or weapons for the sole purpose of financing civil wars in Africa or terrorism worldwide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Literally millions of people have lost their lives as a result, and appalling atrocities have occurred, from the hacking off of arms and legs in Sierra Leone to terrible massacres in Angola.

VARGAS: The History Channel's upcoming documentary "Blood Diamonds" is also taking on the issue, highlighting a side of the diamond world rarely seen.

VH-1 "Bling: A Planet Rock" and another independent documentary, "Bling: Consequences and Repercussions," explore how hip-hop's diamond- soaked lifestyle may fuel the his desire for these types of jewels.

This Hollywood attention has caused the diamond industry to take notice. Even before "Blood Diamond" finished shooting, the World Diamond Council created a Web site, contacted producers of the film, and launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign saying conflict stones account for less than 1 percent of all diamonds.

That's because of the so-called Kimberley Process, an international certification agreement created four years ago to stop the flow of conflict stones.

CECILIA GARDNER, WORLD DIAMOND COUNCIL: We're very concerned that people understand and appreciate the kind of efforts the industry has undertaken to fight conflict diamonds.

VARGAS: Amnesty International admits there have been improvements in the last decade, but says more work needs to be done. It hopes "Blood Diamond's" star power brings wide attention to this problem.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This movie, because it stars Leonardo and Jennifer and Djimon Honsou is going to reach millions of people and will educate them.

VARGAS: I would imagine that it has to change you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I ever buy a diamond again, it will only be without extensive - with extensive questioning as to where that diamond came from and get some kind of authentication that it didn't come from a conflict zone.

VARGAS: Sibila Vargas, CNN, Hollywood.


OKE: Isn't it amazing, a movie can get the whole world talking about diamonds in Africa. Well, I'll have to watch it.

That's it for this week's show. Thank you very much for watching. There's more to come next week, so join us same time, same place. Let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent.

Until the next time, I'm Femi Oke. Take care.



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