Africa now faces perhaps its greatest challenge: how to make its abundant natural resources work for all its people.
Sadly, in recent years, some of the countries most liberally endowed with nature's gifts have been reduced to utter penury by mismanagement of those resources and by greedy warlords contesting the ever-diminishing spoils. Today, in an effort to resolve this problem, a concerned world is trying to break the link between the guns and the gold that warlords receive from their exploitation of mineral wealth.
It is a concern we at De Beers share--for three powerful reasons. The first is one we all share: pity and horror at what decades of conflict have done to the innocents of Africa. The second is the role that competition for control of natural resources has played as a spur to conflict. And the third is the knowledge that, once the locusts of war--the smugglers and greedy fly-by-nights--have picked over the spoils, there will be little left that a future government can use to fund the reconstruction of the country for the benefit of all its people.
For these reasons, De Beers supports efforts to take the diamonds out of conflict situations in West Africa. We have held to the letter and spirit of the United Nations sanction on rebel Angolan diamonds since its inception in June 1998. Furthermore, De Beers has now gone beyond the U.N. sanction and no longer purchases any diamonds from Angola regardless of origin. We are encouraging the diamond trade to follow suit.
In a debate that has produced much more heat than light, however, it is important to remind ourselves of certain facts about the three countries that are the subject of international concern. Sierra Leone is now at peace and is not subject to sanctions. Neither is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is edging toward a kind of peace and where more than a million people depend on diamond mining for their livelihood.
In Angola, during the last U.N.-brokered peace settlement, members of the longtime rebel group UNITA were members of the coalition government. There was no legal or indeed ethical sanction then against a diamond trade, which, if peace held, could have contributed to the rebuilding of the country. Unfortunately, that peace did not hold, and since mid-1998 sanctions have been applied to UNITA in an effort to reduce its access to arms.
We sincerely hope that when a lasting peace does come to Angola, the diamond industry will be able to fulfill its proper role and contribute to the rebuilding of its economy. I refuse to believe this is a vain hope. For the benefits that orderly mining can provide are visible to anyone who has ever visited South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
It is perhaps Botswana that provides the best example of what can happen when a country's natural wealth is exploited for the benefit of the many. Last year diamonds provided 65 percent of the government revenue and 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange.
Diamond wealth should be a cause not of conflict or individual greed but of real and lasting good. Many people--we at De Beers included--are devoting a great deal of time and effort to ensure that diamonds are not used to fund conflict.
But as we seek real and practical steps to reassure the consumer, some voices are being heard suggesting that all diamonds are somehow tainted. This argument is wrong--disastrously so.
Let me spell it out: In terms of volume, less than 1 1/2 percent of all gem diamonds produced in the world last year came from Angola. And even less is from UNITA-controlled territories. Far from putting an end to conflict in Angola, a campaign against diamonds would only damage the economies of peaceful, democratic countries in Africa, as well as of India, where more than 700,000 people are employed by the diamond-cutting industry.
We at De Beers, together with our partners and the responsible governments in southern Africa, are doing everything we can to ensure that diamonds work for Africa and not against it. It is a task that calls for wisdom, well-considered, practical measures and long-term planning; not short-term gain, or glib, well-meaning but ultimately destructive slogans.
The writer is chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines.