Kimberly Process failing diamond mining oversight

  • July 27, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - About 15 per cent of the world’s diamonds are mined by 1.3 million artisanal diamond diggers, many of them living on less than a dollar a day. In addition, diamond fields in sub-Saharan African countries are often controlled by whichever militia has the most guns, and diamonds have generated the cash to fuel some of the most horrific and enduring wars of our time.

A single gold ring creates as much as 20 tons of waste, while about half the gold mines currently in production are on the traditional lands of indigenous people — often against their will.

So what kind of symbol of everlasting love is the average wedding band or engagement ring?

After years of trying to at least chase conflict diamonds out of the market, Canadian Ian Smillie quit the Kimberly Process last month. Launched in 2003 to stamp out smuggled diamonds that often finance wars, the Kimberly Process was supposed to assure diamond buyers they weren’t putting a gun in the hands of an African teenager.

As research director for the Ottawa-based NGO Partnership Africa Canada , Smillie was one of the campaigners who got the process going. He quit in June over what he calls incompetence — the inability to investigate and report on sudden anomalies in diamond import and export data and the unwillingness of government officials to act on violations.

“The tendency to talk nice and avoid any kind of unpleasantness is enormous,” he said.

It took four months of negotiation for the Kimberly Process to send an investigation team into Zimbabwe this summer to check out reports of illegal mining and the complete absence of export controls. The team that finally went in at the beginning of July included no NGO representatives.

Guinea has reported a mysterious 500-per-cent increase in diamond exports over the past two years but the team that investigated last summer has been unable to produce a report or decide on action to be taken. Smillie said investigators spent a total of two hours outside the capital city of Conakry.

Lebanon reports it is exporting more diamonds than it imports, even though it has no diamond mines.

“These are all things that the Kimberly Process should jump on,” said Smillie.

“I share his (Smillie’s) concerns, his frustrations and his disappointments,” said Jewelers of America president and CEO Matt Runci, one of the jewelry industry representatives in the Kimberly Process.

While Runci thinks Smillie is right about the bumbling and ineffectiveness of investigations, he’s sticking with it.

“It’s imperative it be fixed rather than that we all simply agree that it’s failed and walk away,” he said.

Runci believes the Kimberly Process has made it less likely a diamond in the jewelry store window has helped finance a war, but he knows the larger factor has been the tendency for some African wars to peter out over recent years.

“Some of the most horrid conflicts that gave rise to the process in the first place have, at least for the present, been resolved,” he said. Sierra Leone and Angola hosted the most notorious, diamond-financed civil wars in the 1990s.

But just stopping the conflict diamonds doesn’t really solve the problem for artisanal miners, and it’s a long way from guaranteeing an ethical diamond — one that doesn’t use child labour, isn’t mined with total disregard for the environment and benefits the community where it has been mined, said Smillie.

So Smillie has moved on to chair the board of the Diamond Development Initiative, a new NGO focussed on trying to make life better for poor diamond diggers.

“They (artisanal miners) are unorganized and disorganized. Many of them are illicit. It’s dangerous, dirty work. They’re vulnerable to every predator. And that’s where conflict diamonds come from,” said Smillie. “This is a development problem. They’re doing this because they’re poor.”

Looking at the issue from a development perspective interests the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. It is researching the Diamond Development Initiative, and Runci, who also sits on the DDI board, said it might be open to a partnership with Development and Peace.

Canadian consumers can avoid the issue by buying Canadian diamonds. Canada is the world’s third-largest producer of rough diamonds. Vanessa Nicholas-Schmidt and her husband Michael spent $1,300 last year on her engagement ring and another $600 on wedding bands, making sure the gold was mined by a co-operative in Colombia and the diamond came from a conflict-free mine in Canada. She paid the price for a clear conscience.

“We found that sometimes it was 100-per-cent more for a Canadian diamond,” she said.

A Canadian diamond isn’t necessarily an ethical diamond, said Nicholas-Schmidt. She doesn’t approve of the ecological damage modern mines can create and she’s not so sure that native communities in Canada’s north are benefitting from the mines. But Phyllis Richard, chair of the Canadian Diamond Code of Conduct, points out that Canadian mining is regulated in ways that artisanal mining in Venezuela never has been.

About 20 per cent of customers who shop at Diamonds For Less in Toronto ask about blood diamonds or express an interest in buying a Canadian diamond for ethical reasons, said an employee who asked not to be identified.

At the upper end of the market, award-winning jewelry designer Varouj Tabakian estimates anywhere from 40 to 50 per cent of his customers are concerned about where their diamond comes from. That’s a big change from just a few years ago, Tabakian said.

It’s easier to promote Canadian, conflict-free diamonds at Tabakian’s exclusive shop.

“With the price I’m charging, it’s not going to make that much difference,” he said.

But Tabakian is not so sure about the discount end of the industry.

“As far as the malls and the big chains, they want to charge competitive prices. I mean, I compete with them but....”

Smillie said he’s not trying to create a perfect world, just a better one. He doesn’t think warlords and criminals are about to abandon diamonds any time soon.

“When you’ve got something very valuable, like diamonds — a very concentrated form of wealth — of course there will always be theft and smuggling,” he said.

Consumers and people who care about development in diamond-producing regions shouldn’t feel like there’s nothing they can do to make the situation better, he said.

“There’s plenty you can do. First of all, the Kimberly Process can work and should work, and maybe others can make it work,” said Smillie.

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