This is a 24-carat disaster for Africa

A former diamond-digger in the Congo explains how the ‘blood diamonds’ scare has made life tougher for Africans.

Kieron Ryan

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Last week, supermodel Naomi Campbell was placed in the ridiculous position of having to give testimony at the war crimes trial of former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor on the grounds that she received a ‘blood diamond’ from him after a dinner party 13 years ago. One might reasonably question the company Campbell keeps, but on the diamond issue she should tell her inquisitors to go to hell.

The concept of ‘conflict diamonds’ – gems mined in order to finance military operations – bears no relation to the complex on-the-ground realities in Africa. And the international efforts to stem the trade in these stones have only made things worse. Like the war on drugs, the war on diamonds is ineffective, pointless and unenforceable, encouraging underhand dealings and putting local people in greater danger rather than protecting them.

As someone who has toiled the rivers of Congo for diamonds and interacted with diamond traders of many nationalities, I have a somewhat jaded view of those who have criminalised trading in these precious stones. In 2002, the Kimberly Process Certification scheme (KPC) was introduced as a joint initiative between governments, industry and civil society organisations to force traders to certify stones as ‘conflict-free’. The aim is to stem the flow of ‘rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments’.

In truth, while an experienced diamond dealer will be able to tell you the source of stones – since diamonds of every region carry their own unique ‘DNA’ – he will not be able to say whether that a particular stone is ‘conflict-free’. In fact, the distinction between conflict diamonds and conflict-free diamonds makes no sense when considering real-life situations in diamond prospecting and trading.

Take Zimbabwe for instance, the latest cause célèbre of the blood diamond lobbyists. In recent years, Zimbabwean stones have flooded the market, and one has to marvel at the resourcefulness of locals who scramble beneath the barbed wire of state interference. A few years back, near the border with Mozambique, an enterprising Zimbabwean stumbled on what turned out to be perhaps the largest diamond field in the world and happily set about exploiting his find until big wigs from the ruling Zanu-PF party decreed it state property. The state killed scores of diggers trying to eke out a modest living. Still, the traders find ways to smuggle and bribe their way to South Africa, clutching parcels of stones to trade and feed their families back home.

This case hardly fits the KPC template: it is a purely economic conflict and has nothing to do with rebel warfare against governments. That Zimbabwean diamonds sustain and nurture a despicable regime is indisputable. But the same diamond thieves who run the country also control the black markets in fuel and foreign exchange. Perhaps we need certification processes for these, too?

Reports from Mozambique suggest that between 100 and 1,000 smugglers do errands for Zimbabwean army officers each day, taking stones from Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe to Vila de Manica in Mozambique, where they are purchased for about $25 a carat by Lebanese traders and then sold on to overseas buyers for as much as $1,000 per carat. That still does not classify these stones as blood diamonds: there is no ongoing war to warrant such a label.

The situation in Congo is another prime example of the corrosive consequences of prohibition imposed through the Kimberly process. Here, you can visit the open-air diamond markets any day of the week. You can buy stones – and, yes, locals try to rip off foreigners – but no one will ask about licences. Nor will the buyer insist on a KPC because the bureaucrats who handle this end of the paperwork can be easily bought and sold. Every comptoir (diamond dealing house) in MbujiMayi or Tshikapa, in central Congo, has government officials present at all times to keep count of the diamond transactions. These officials are bought off with $50 or $100 a day. The under-count at this end of the global diamond trade is stupendous.

Despite all the hoopla about blood diamonds in Congo, the conflict there has been confined to the eastern Goma region of the country. Other than an occasional skirmish, there was no conflict in the Kasai province, where some of the world’s richest alluvial diamond deposits are found. In fact, this is one of the most peaceful places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. You can walk around MbujiMayi at 11pm and feel safer than you would in Johannesburg, Nairobi or London.

Today it is possible to buy stones in Goma, Angola, Zimbabwe or even South Africa, ship them to Kinshasa in Congo and then have them sanitised by way of a locally issued KPC. A few hundred dollars is all you need. That’s what happens when proscription enters the scene.

Moreover, the Kimberly process has pushed trading underground, forcing people to use dangerous means of taking stones across borders. A Congolese friend was recently robbed of 100,000 rand (US$13,500) at gunpoint in Lesotho when attempting to purchase stones and smuggle them across to South Africa. Should we classify these as conflict stones, or simply a trophy of crime?

Both in South Africa and Congo it is illegal to carry rough diamonds without a rough diamond trading licence, though I suspect less than five per cent of Congolese diggers and traders actually carry such licences. Any day of the week at the heavily fortified Jewel City in central Johannesburg you will find traders of every stripe hawking rough stones from Zimbabwe, Congo, Angola and Lesotho. Few of them have the necessary licences. The diamond police set up snares to catch them, and those without licences are likely to have their stones confiscated. What then happens to these stones is anybody’s guess, but it is a scheme ripe for corruption. We know that many of these stones reappear on the market for resale.

State-sanctioned monopolies of any kind inevitably attract armies of bureaucrats, criminals and carpetbaggers. Like the hopelessly ineffective war on drugs, the war on blood diamonds has not only been lost – it is pointless. Diamonds are small – five carats is equivalent to one gram. You can hide a 20-carat stone in your mouth and walk through pretty much any customs post. Depending on the quality, you can then sell that for perhaps US$50,000 and then repeat the cycle. You may not win the Ethics in Business Award, but smugglers don’t play in that league.

In reality, the concept of bloods diamonds is a giant hoax. All over Africa, tens of thousands of diggers and traders make an honest living finding and selling stones. They carry no guns and do not trade with warlords. Few of them know anything about the KPC. Once the stones leave Kinshasa or Luanda, the exporter simply tidies up the paperwork for the recipient in Brussels, Tel Aviv or Mumbai. Even if the stones are sourced in conflict areas, it can be guaranteed that for a small fee they can be laundered through the KPC process and end up on someone’s finger in North America or Europe.

This is not to say that the diamond trade is rotten to the core. Not all stones are handled this way – there are many dealers who stick rigidly to the rules of the game. But diamonds are a perfect store of movable value: they are small, light and easy to conceal. The KPC has not prevented conflict, but it has promoted monopolies, corruption and smuggling while making life harder for diggers and traders.

Diamonds are harmless, if over-priced, commodities, and it’s time we started to fight back against the ridiculous and ineffective encroachment on our freedoms that the KPC represents.

Kieron Ryan is a South Africa-based writer and commodities entrepreneur who has worked in the diamond trade in Congo, South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. He grew up in Africa, studied in Dublin and lived for a while in the US, but prefers the freedom and chaos that Africa offers over just about any other place in the world.

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