De Beers campaign to counter DiCaprio film
Bushmen appeal to star for help against industry
Wednesday September 20, 2006
The diamond industry has begun a campaign to safeguard its
lucrative Christmas trade from what it fears will be a blitz of
negative publicity resulting from a forthcoming Hollywood film
about the trade in African “conflict diamonds”.
De Beers, the world’s biggest diamond company, plans to spend
8m on publicity this autumn, in advance of the release in
December of Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which
threatens to make diamonds as unfashionable as fur.
In the film DiCaprio plays a South African mercenary who goes
on a quest in pursuit of a rare pink diamond through rebel-held
territory in Sierra Leone, a west African country whose civil
war was fuelled by diamond smuggling, and resulted in 75,000
In real life, DiCaprio has become the poster boy for those who
believe the diamond industry is wrecking lives. The film has
inspired a band of Kalahari Bushmen to advertise in the
Hollywood magazine Variety, attacking the diamond business.
The Bushmen, who claim they have been expelled from ancestral
land in Botswana to make way for diamond mining, appealed for
In an open letter to the star, they said: “After diamonds were
found on our land we were evicted… Those diamonds are a curse
for us. We hope you will use your film to let people know that
we too are victims of diamonds and we just want to go home.”
In turn, Hollywood has been accused of trivialising the truth
about African diamonds by some in the gemstone trade. Eli
Izhakoff, chairman of industry body the World Diamond Council,
said: “This movie, drawing attention to this subject, is
something that happened years ago, something that was
The industry has set up a website aimed at countering a
backlash from the film. Diamondfacts.org tells of the benefits
the industry has brought to its workers and enlists the
unimpeachable sainthood of Nelson Mandela, who describes the
diamond industry as “vital” to southern Africa’s economy. In
Botswana, 25% of jobs are directly or indirectly linked to
diamonds, while in Namibia the diamond trade is the second
biggest employer after the government, the industry says.
The Bushmen are not the only African voices drawn into the
debate. Patrick Mazimhaka, a Rwandan diplomat who is now deputy
chairman of the African Union, wrote in a US newspaper recently
that blaming diamonds for fuelling conflict “misses the fact
that plenty of good can be accomplished with earnings from
natural resources. With the right ingredients… good
governance and careful leadership… commodities have been a
tremendous force for continental good.”
The diamond trade’s campaign is meant to safeguard a market
worth 1.2bn in Britain last year. Diamond retailers make a
fifth of their sales at Christmas, when the film is due for its
US release. It is expected to come out in Britain in the New
Year. “We don’t see [the film] as damaging so long as it’s
dealt with in a historical perspective,” Mr Izhakoff said.
The industry claims conflict diamonds now make up less than 1%
of those sold, compared with 4% in the late 1990s, the period
in which the film is set. Conflict diamonds have been virtually
eliminated by the Kimberley Process, a scheme which requires
governments to track rough diamonds from mines to the polished
stage, the industry says.
“This system that we’ve put together is not perfect, but we
are making every effort to make it so,” Mr Izhakoff told the
Guardian. “We don’t want one stone out there that’s a conflict
But not everyone agrees the problem has been solved. After
peace deals ended several African civil wars, the main source
of conflict diamonds is Ivory Coast, where rebels control some
mining areas. According to the pressure group Global Witness,
gems smuggled out of Ivory Coast into Mali are being sold on to
Congo-Brazzaville has been prohibited from diamond trading
because of suspicions that it is a hub for smuggling, and
though the civil war is over in its neighbour, the Democratic
Republic of Congo, there is still occasional fighting for
control of diamond mines and other minerals.
Susie Sanders, Global Witness campaigner, said: “We’re pushing
for stronger internal controls to make sure that conflict
diamonds can’t be smuggled into countries that are [in the]
Kimberley Process and exported. There is lots of cross-border
smuggling. The control systems just aren’t strong enough.”
Jewellers in London’s Hatton Garden diamond district said they
had been approached directly by smugglers offering west African
diamonds. Malcolm Park-Carpenter, manager of Channings
jewellers, said: "The only thing we can do is make sure they’re
non-conflict through our sources. We don’t buy from Angola or
anywhere that it can be turned into arms.
“Sierra Leone is one of the countries we don’t touch. We get
people coming in from there [saying]: ‘Do you buy rough
diamonds?’. We say: ‘Where are they from?’ - [they say] ‘Sierra
Leone’, and we say ‘Get out’. We’re doing everything we can to
make sure we don’t end up funding AK-47s.” The shop manager’s
answers revealed good intentions but inaccurate knowledge.
Angola and Sierra Leone have peace deals and can legitimately
trade in diamonds, but illicitly offered gems may be conflict
diamonds from Ivory Coast.
There is a fear that controversy around the film will provoke
a backlash against all African diamonds, an outcome both the
industry and the campaigners want to avoid. “It would be
terrible if the film led to Sierra Leone being seen as a
pariah,” said Ms Sanders of Global Witness. "Quite a few
African countries with artisanal mining have weak control
systems. It’s [the case] in West Africa and the Congo.
“What we really hope doesn’t happen is that people say ‘I’m
not going to buy African diamonds’. What we want to do is
protect the legitimate trade from Africa.”
How much is the business worth?
Retail diamond sales totalled 1.2bn in the UK last year, the
industry says. Sales have increased gradually in recent years
after a spike in 2001 when they rose by 25%, attributed to a
post-9/11 flurry of engagements.
What are conflict diamonds?
Diamonds extracted by rebel groups, or in defiance of security
council resolutions, and sold to pay for weapons and
ammunition. It is said that in the 1990s the Angolan rebel
group Unita generated 2bn over six years mainly from illegal
gems. Ivory Coast is the main source remaining of conflict
diamonds after peace deals ended wars elsewhere in Africa.
Sanctions on diamond exports from Liberia are likely to be
lifted soon. The civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s drew
international attention to the problem.
What is being done about it?
In 2003, countries signed up to the Kimberley Process, a
certification scheme meant to stop diamonds being used to fund
wars. A total of 69 states are now members. Governments have to
keep records tracking diamonds from source to their polished
form. The industry says conflict diamonds are now 1% of those
sold, down from 4% in the 1990s.
What happens next?
At the next meeting of Kimberley Process members - in
Gaborone, Botswana, in November - campaigners will call for
tighter internal controls. The biggest difficulties occur in
developing countries, where diamonds are dug up from riverbeds
by gangs of informal miners. Local conflicts, porous borders
and corrupt officials compound the problem.