Reporter Discusses Dark Side of Diamonds

National Geographic News
February 12, 2003
It's the time of the year when lovers are thinking of spoiling their partners with chocolates, flowers, and—for the really appreciated—diamonds.

The precious, sparkling stone forged in the heat of the Earth has long been a symbol of love. But how many people who buy them at great price and sport them on fingers and necks realize that there is a dark side to diamonds? That in some parts of the world diamonds are wrestled from the ground in dangerous conditions by some of the world's poorest people? That the tiny size and relative anonymity of diamonds can make them the ideal means to fund war, terrorism, and criminal syndicates?

In a National Geographic Special Diamonds of War that premiered on U.S. television this week, reporter Dominic Cunningham-Reid went from the streets of Manhattan to the diamond exchanges of Antwerp to the war-ravaged hills of Sierra Leone, investigating the history, culture and global politics that drive the diamond industry.

Cunningham-Reid documented the consequences of a civil war fueled by the diamond black market and revealed the harsh lives of those who risk life and limb to mine the precious fragments of carbon.

National Geographic News interviewed Cunningham-Reid about the documentary.

You were born in Kenya and have covered conflicts all over the continent. How did being a native African help you cover the blood diamond story in Sierra Leone?

My life in Africa and my experiences on the continent have taught me how to deal with people.

One learns to expect the unexpected and how to deal with potentially very dangerous situations, sometimes by verbally disarming people who might have bad intentions using a unique blend of humor found in Africa.

I knew Sierra Leone at its most brutal period in history, and, despite the fact that the war is over, there is still bad blood underneath. In our travels on the diamond story, I constantly relied on my instincts. Humor is the best weapon for safe travel in Africa, and understanding what humor to employ is the key, even in places at war. There is no doubt this helped us on our journey in Sierra Leone.

Today, how is Sierra Leone rebuilding after its brutal ten-year civil war?

Sierra Leone has had a free and fair election and is in the process of rebuilding its infrastructure with the help of the international community. On the street, however, opportunities for employment and a future remain slim.

Everyone hopes that diamonds and other minerals will help rebuild the country; but in reality much of the diamond wealth does not come back to the people, or the country. The wealth remains in the hands of relatively few powerful individuals who control the business.

A solid future depends on whether the new government finds a way to recycle the wealth created by diamonds and other resources back into the country.

Hundreds of civilians, including children, had limbs amputated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel army, during the war. How are these victims doing?

Many of the victims are living in the Amputee Camp in Freetown, where they are attending school and learning to cope with their injuries. When peace was signed, the government of Sierra Leone promised a percentage of the mineral wealth, generated predominantly by diamonds, to the victims of the war. But I hear that up to this day, they have not seen any funds and live in squalid conditions in Freetown.

You can see many amputees begging on the streets in the hopes of making a little money.

You met many diamond miners who work all day in gravel pits or even dive to the bottoms of lakes to find diamonds. What are your impressions of these miners?

In all my time in Africa I have never seen such a desperate procedure.

The men digging in the open mines or diving into the riverbeds are driven by desperation for fast money. They do not really know what happens with the diamonds they are looking for, or that many of the diamonds end up as symbols of wealth and power. All they know is that they make a meager living selling their stones at bargain prices to make their daily bread.

The injustice here is that the miner who finds a stone is at the bottom of the food chain and does not have any means to get his wares to a fair market. He has to take what he can get, as the powerful who control the business in Sierra Leone drive a hard bargain and often collude to drive down the prices.

The miner is also in debt to his employer, or sponsor, as they are known in Sierra Leone—the man who gives him rice and a shovel and sometimes a little pocket change when times are hard. This is the man he is expected to sell the stones to when he finds them. Since the miner knows little about diamond pricing, chances are he won't get a good deal. It's a desperate life, a far cry from the world of diamonds most of us know.

Were you and your crew ever concerned for your safety when you visited the smuggling town deep in the bush?

We were a little nervous when things got tense on the street because we really had no idea what unknown forces we were dealing with, or whose toes we were stepping on.

At least on a frontline you know who's shooting at you and how to get away from it. Here, we had entered into a very shadowy world with many players and there was no way to read the situation. It was vital we get in and out fast.

The Kimberley Process was set up to stop the flow of conflict diamonds into the legitimate world markets. Is it working?

Well, the Kimberley Process really is still an infant and it's taking on a very complicated business.

Alone, the legal mechanics of the diamond trade are very unusual and complex—never mind the illegal trade.

To be fair to all those involved, one can say it certainly will make a difference if the whole system can be monitored and enforced on the ground. If this system can be properly managed, monitored and enforced with heavy penalties to offenders, then the Kimberley Process will stem the flow of huge amounts of diamonds from countries that don't produce any diamonds.

Congo Brazzaville, a country well known for exporting millions in diamonds it does not produce will find this harder to do in the future, but in essence, I feel that the officialdom of certificates and paperwork can easily be beaten in Africa.

I'm certain it will not take long for corrupt and imaginative people in the crime business to figure out its loopholes. The smuggling of diamonds by individuals will probably always continue to provide an illicit supply of stones to the market, and presumably even conflict stones.

The industry has to have the conviction to see the process through to the end rather than drip-feed the Kimberley Process with weak procedures of enforcement; there needs to be a genuine commitment to make it work.

With the wars in Angola and Sierra Leone over, the conflict diamond trade has been radically reduced but there is no way of telling if the production of diamonds in these countries is controlled. What is most important is that the diamond industry work with the Kimberley Process to be fully prepared to stem the flow of conflict diamonds effectively in the event these peace processes fail which they have countless times in the past.

What are your thoughts on how traders and businesspeople view buying and selling conflict diamonds?

I think that most businessmen anywhere in the diamond business are concerned about conflict diamonds. They usually deal with suppliers of diamonds they know well and trust to give them clean stones. But it is a competitive business, and there will always be people who will look for an advantage.

During the wars in Angola and Sierra Leone, conflict stones were sold very cheaply, making the profit margins hard to resist. If the stones are good and they have fallen into the system, then the chances are they will be traded and the businessmen who buy them will not know.

Do you think the secretive diamond trading culture of Antwerp will change at all because of the revelations concerning conflict diamonds?

No, I think the very nature of the diamond business demands secrecy—it's part of the culture. At the same time, the industry knows it has to be more open. It's a new struggle they have to grapple with.

Personally, I think it will take many years to change; it's a very old business and the traditions will not bend easily. Most of the industry is hoping the conflict diamond issue will simply disappear. How much they change depends on the pressure put on them to be more open about their transactions and the flow of diamonds around the world.

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