Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Have you ever heard about people talking about how the diamond trade is eff-ed up? About “blood diamonds” and “conflict diamonds”? I’ve heard these term before, heard people in passing saying that there are a lot of messed up things about diamond trade, but I’ve never understood what those messed up things were, and at the same time, I’d see all my friends buying their partners big-rock rings (unfortunately, mostly on loans…). Since I’m now engaged, and would like to give my fiance a little something to commemorate the beginning of our commitments to each other. I decided to do a little digging—that turned into a lot of digging—to learn about what is so messed up about diamond trade, and judge for myself if it’s still a problem warranting me worrying about, or if it’s all leftover hype from issues years back.

I started by looking online for information on problems around diamond mining. Amnesty International has a report about the the political environments in countries in Africa that diamonds are mined. From the report:

“The international diamond industry’s trading centers in Europe funded this horror by buying up to $125 million worth of diamonds a year from the RUF (Sierra Leone’s “Revolutionary United Front”), according to U.N. estimates. Few cared where the gems originated, or calculated the cost in lives lost rather than carats gained. The RUF used its profits to open foreign bank accounts for rebel leaders and to finance a complicated network of gunrunners who kept the rebels well-equipped with the modern military hardware they used to control Sierra Leone’s diamonds. The weapons—and the gems the rebels sold unimpeded to terrorist and corporate trader alike—allowed the RUF to fight off government soldiers, hired mercenaries, peacekeepers from a regional West African reaction force, British paratroopers, and, until recently, the most expansive and expensive peacekeeping mission the U.N. has ever deployed.

Throughout most of the war from 1991 to January 2002, this drama played itself out in obscurity. During the RUF’s worst assaults, international media pulled journalists out of the country in fear for their safety. Local citizens were left to fend for themselves against bloodthirsty and drugged child soldiers. Commanders often cut the children’s arms and packed the wounds with cocaine; marijuana was everywhere.”

Interesting, but a little too specific for me to really get the overall picture. So I started looking for books I could read to catch up on the topic. Unfortunately, most of the more recently published books I saw were from the 90’s, and although they’d proly give me a good idea of what the overall problems were, I was hoping to get something a little more current to help me understand what the problems around diamonds today are, rather than speculating whether problems that were around 10-15 years ago are still around today and what they might be like. Fortunately, a book was just released this year called The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire. The book is written by a journalist as he travels to different parts of the world that mines, cuts, and sells diamonds to learn about how the whole system works.

He starts in the Central African Republic, an economically poor country, whose military doesn’t get paid and begs on the streets for food to get by. The unspoken rule about political power there is that if you can occupy the capital building, you run the country. So the only paid military is guarding the capital building, the rest of the unpaid military leaves it’s borders from neighboring countries barely protected. One of such neighboring countries to the south is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a neighboring county of where the movie Hotel Rwanda took place. The Central African Republic is a country that meets the standards that the diamond industry sets for doing business with (up until quite recently, the only standard was that the nation wasn’t in a state of war as defined by the united nations), but the country is only physically capable of producing half of the diamonds they actually export every year. Where do the extra gems come from? The Democratic Republic of Congo is only a canoe ride away to the south, so the widely accepted speculation is this: rebel groups in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo fight for land ownership in their own countries of diamond mines. They have their people mine for gems while violently protecting it from being seized by other rebel groups. Once they have some diamonds, they’ll slip them under their tongues or someplace easily concealed, canoe over to the Central African Republic, sell their diamonds in the black market for cash, and go back to their home country with money to buy weapons and ammunition with. The Central Africa Republic has no real resources to crack down on transactions like this, so they happen all the time, and because of it, it’s almost impossible to really know where the diamond on your 1 carat solitaire ring came from.

In Angola, rebel militias have found that robbing diamond mines at gunpoint has become more lucrative than actually trying to mine them themselves. Militia troupes have gotten so paranoid that miners are trying to steal diamonds from them (by swallowing them so they can shuffle through their own waste the next day to pull out the diamond) that if they suspect a miner having done so, they’ll kill them and cut them open so they can shuffle through their digestive systems to get the diamonds out of them.

Brazil doesn’t have as extreme war-like political conditions as these countries in Africa do, but their labor works in very much the same way. Miners don’t get paid unless they actually find a diamond. Miners can go months on end without finding even the smallest gem without getting paid a penny.

What makes the whole system around diamond mining even worse is how Debeers and other wholesalers completely take advantage of poor economies so they can see higher profits. If a miner were to find a gem that would sell in the final market for $10,000, they might get $100, more likely around $50. In nations where diamonds represent a major portion of their exports, and a major portion of their population’s income, they’re trapped in a system that keeps them economically poor while people further up the channels of distribution control supply and demand to a point where they can set their own prices and make huge, huge, enormous profits for their shareholders.

The more I learn about this stuff, the less and less I want to ever buy a diamond. If money is power, then everything we buy is a political statement. Why would I support such a messed up system by purchasing it’s commodities? It’s easy to say, “yea, but this stuff happens all the time, with everything you buy, there no way to get around it, so just buy a nice looking diamond and forget about it.” But even if I can’t get around supporting messed up systems in every dollar I spend, I can at least try to avoid it as much as possible.

(Sorry to all my friends who have bought themselves or their partners diamond jewelery if reading this brings forth nasty feelings of guilt… but those who are thinking about it, hopefully you’ll find this information somewhat useful…)