Blood Diamonds: A River or a Droplet?

In Sierra Leone, miners pan for diamonds and a dealer weighs the gems. Conscientious consumers weigh the risk of their stone being a
In Sierra Leone, miners pan for diamonds and a dealer weighs the gems. Conscientious consumers weigh the risk of their stone being a "conflict diamond." (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What a fuss a number can make -- one little number. And here it is: Fewer than 1 percent of diamonds on the market today are "conflict diamonds."

The number seems surprising, considering all the attention focused on the gems since the film "Blood Diamond" came out this month. For if that 1 percent is true, it means that 99 percent of the world's diamonds are conflict-free, which certainly does seem to throw a bucket of cold water on the movement against conflict diamonds.

No wonder the diamond industry loves that little number. And no wonder the conflict diamond movement is pleased to have Hollywood on its side -- the better to reenergize a flagging social cause.

At the film's Hollywood premiere, "Blood Diamond" director Edward Zwick reportedly called 1 percent "a funky number" that doesn't capture the breadth of the problem. Zwick has positioned his film as a galvanizing tool to warn consumers about diamonds illicitly mined by rebel armies during wartime.

Zwick also has taken aim at hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who has been highlighting the benefit of diamonds for African economies. Simmons's position echoes that of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who wrote to Zwick earlier this year about how the movie might hurt diamond sales and destabilize diamond-producing countries.

The movie, with box office receipts of more than $25 million, follows Kanye West's 2005 hit song "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." Up next is a History Channel documentary, "Blood Diamonds," airing Saturday, and early next year a VH1 documentary called "Bling: A Planet Rock," which will feature hip-hop stars traveling to Sierra Leone to highlight the issue.

The irony is this: Conflict diamonds are far rarer than they were just a few years ago. Back then, when rebels in Sierra Leone were hacking off the hands of civilians in a war funded by diamonds, activists could barely get Hollywood's attention.

"Yeah, in those years back in 2000, 2001, it was a little lonely," says Rory E. Anderson, a conflict diamond expert with the charity World Vision.

Sierra Leone is at peace, by the way. Its war ended in 2002. But that seems not to matter. All this delayed outrage over conflict diamonds still can be useful in the battle for hearts and minds. Activists stop short of calling for a diamond boycott, but they do want to put diamond retailers on notice by urging consumers to become more aggressive in asking about the origins of their stones.

But how to spark all this consumer concern when only 1 percent of the stones are considered conflict diamonds?

Question the little number. Global Witness, the British advocacy group that first alerted the world to the problem in 1998, now says that conflict diamonds are part of a controversial stream of stones that also includes smuggled diamonds and diamonds mined in abusive labor situations all over the world. Put all that together, and the flow of controversial diamonds, says Global Witness, really is more like 20 percent.

"It all boils down to definitions," Alex Yearsley, campaign coordinator for Global Witness, wrote in an e-mail. "We're not attempting to conflate the issue," he wrote, but added that "the issue of illicit [diamonds] is intimately connected to conflict diamonds."

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