How the African Diamond Trade Works

Diamond Image Gallery Diamond seekers work near Freetown, Sierra Leone, in Africa. The country's diamond trade is known to have funded civil war and terrorism. See more pictures of diamonds.
Desirey Minkoh /AFP/Getty Images

Few things elicit the response to the gift of a clear, perfect diamond -- particularly if given in that trademark Tiffany-blue box. Women clamor for them and men shell out thousands of dollars for engagement rings, pendants and the like. Friends compete to see who has the biggest and best diamond ring, only to be one-upped by the next friend to get engaged (if her fiancé knows what's good for ­him).

This phenomenon has its roots in marketing by the diamond industry -- ruled largely by the company De Beers -- and has reaped benefits for decades. In 2005, the diamond industry was estimated to be worth a whopping $60 billion [source: Blood Diamond Action]. Diamonds are judged on the Four Cs -- clarity, color, cut and carat weight.

­Critics wonder, however, if the same women who lust after these precious gems would feel the same if they knew about the fifth "C": conflict. Would they consider their rings to be worth the suffering, deaths and displacement of thousands of Africans? Known as blood diamonds or conflict diamonds, these gems are mined and exported illegally from certain parts of Africa by corrupt groups bent on funding bloody rebel conflicts and civil wars.

Before we get into the gruesome details of the corrupt African diamond trade, it's important to note two things. First, only a small percentage of the world's diamonds are known still to come from these particular regions of Africa. It's impossible to know if that statistic is truly accurate, because diamonds are very easy to smuggle out of these war-torn countries. Second, not all countries in Africa are home to corrupt diamond mining and trading.

To understand the African diamond trade, you have to know how and why diamonds are exploited in parts of Africa, as well as where this has been and continues to be a problem. You also might want to know how to avoid buying a conflict or blood diamond for your special someone, and what people are doing to eliminate this problem completely.

By the end of this story you may be tempted to find your diamond sales certificate to ensure that your token of undying love didn't contribute to the mayhem that has gripped parts of Africa for decades.

So how did the African diamond trade get its start, and who's trying to keep it under control? Find out more on the next page.

History of Diamonds in Africa

A diamond hunter pans for gems near Koidu, Sierra Leone
A diamond hunter pans for gems near Koidu, Sierra Leone
Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Diamonds in Africa were formed somewhere between 600 million and 3 billion years ago when titanic-force pressure and heat caused carbon 1,200 miles (1,931 km) below the Earth's surface to crystallize. As recently as a million years ago, erupting molten rock brought the diamonds closer to the Earth's surface.

Since then, they have brought joy into the hearts of those who receive them and stress into the hearts of those who can't afford them. The irony of diamond desire is that it centers around the idea that diamonds are precious and rare. While diamonds may be precious gems, they aren't even a little bit rare. Mines in Africa, Canada and other countries abound with the stones, which are mined, cut and then marked way up to result in a huge profit.

However, De Beers, the powerhouse that controls about 60 percent of the diamond industry, has spent the last decades waging a stunning marketing campaign that continues to gain momentum. Desire for diamonds has never been greater and the industry continues to grow despite rising costs and concern over legitimacy. Despite the company's seeming monopoly on the world's diamonds, De Beers insists that their diamonds are 100 percent conflict-free [source: De Beers].

The World Diamond Council, formed in 2000 to combat illegal diamond trading in Africa, maintains that diamonds benefit the world in many ways other than just looking pretty. For example, roughly 10 million people worldwide are supported by the diamond industry. Also, revenue from the diamond industry is integral to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

What exactly are blood diamonds? Find out more on the next page.

African Blood Diamonds

Workers pan for diamonds at a government-run mine in Sierra Leone. Al Qaeda is known to have made millions of dollars from the sale of diamonds mined illegally by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.
Workers pan for diamonds at a government-run mine in Sierra Leone. Al Qaeda is known to have made millions of dollars from the sale of diamonds mined illegally by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Experts claim that the illegal sale of blood diamonds has produced billions of dollars to fund civil wars and other conflicts in various African nations, including Sierra Leone (where conflict ended in 2002), Angola, Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most of the time, the people behind these civil wars and rebellions oppose legitimate governments and desire control over the area's lucrative diamond industry.

For example, in Sierra Leone a group known as the Revolutionary United Front killed, threatened, and even cut off the arms of people living and working in diamond villages until they were able to take control of the mines in the area. Then the group moved on to the next village to do more of the same, effectively terrorizing the entirety of Sierra Leone, to the point that many people fled their homes in fear. All in all, roughly 20,000 innocent people suffered bodily mutilation, 75,000 were killed and 2 million fled Sierra Leone altogether [source: PBS Online NewsHour]. According to National Geographic News, all of these conflicts combined have displaced millions and resulted in the deaths of more than 4 million people.

In the 1990s, human rights organizations worked to bring these tales of genocide and greed to the forefront of human concern. In response, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KCPS) was created in 2002 to regulate diamond trading and keep blood diamonds from entering the legitimate diamond market. The Kimberley Process was envisioned by the diamond industry and put into practice by the United Nations.

According to De Beers, more than 70 countries participate in the Kimberley Process, which requires the governments in these countries to ensure that all diamond shipments are exported in secure containers. In addition, each shipment must also have a specifically numbered and government-validated certificate that promises the shipment does not contain conflict diamonds. The countries must also agree to refuse any diamond shipments not containing an authentic Kimberley Process Certificate.

Proponents of the Kimberley Process claim that 99.8 percent of the world's diamonds are now legitimate and conflict-free. Critics, however, claim that the program doesn't prevent diamonds from being easily smuggled from war-torn countries to Kimberley Process countries and then passed off as legitimate. In fact, the United Nations and the United States government released reports as recently as 2006 stating that roughly $23 million worth of Ivory Coast diamonds were smuggled into trade and distributed as legitimate [source: National Geographic].

Although Africa supplies about 60 percent of the world's diamond supply, there are alternate sources [source: PBS NewsHour Extra]. First, remember that not all African diamond mines are corrupt. For example, the African nation Botswana has been able to thrive thanks to a successful diamond mining industry. As recently as 1999, it was considered the world's fastest-growing economy. In fact, three-quarters of Botswana's export profits and 45 percent of the country's government revenue are produced by diamonds. Thanks to a legitimate diamond industry, Botswana has enjoyed a complete about-face from one of the world's poorest countries in 1966 to the world's most rapidly growing economy over the last 25 years [source: Allafrica.com].

A miner works a diamond mine in Northwest Territories, Canada. A miner works a diamond mine in Northwest Territories, Canada.
A miner works a diamond mine in Northwest Territories, Canada.
Stephen Ferry/Liaison/Getty Images

Canada also boasts an up-and-coming diamond industry, and many other countries around the world feature diamond mines.

To the dismay of the diamond industry, scientists around the world have been trying for more than 50 years to create real diamonds in a laboratory setting, hoping to end the need for naturally occurring diamonds. Although stones that pass as diamonds as far as their consistency and ability to cut other diamonds have been created from carbon rich substances, they are not yet considered gem quality. Instead, they are used for industrial purposes, such as diamond-tipped cutting tools.

How did we learn about the conflicts surrounding the African diamond trade? Find out about the surprising source of our understanding on the next page.

Conflict Diamonds on the Silver Screen

John Reader/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

While human rights groups may have stirred up the controversy on the corrupt African diamond trade enough to establish the Kimberley Process, it took a Leonardo DiCaprio movie to truly raise public awareness. The aptly titled movie "Blood Diamond" was released in 2006 and featured DiCaprio as an arms smuggler whose main goal is to obtain a seemingly priceless diamond from a villager during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The film, although it has been called mild in comparison to reality, depicts the brutality that inhabitants of diamond villages were subjected to. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won numerous other awards.

Naturally, the diamond industry went on the defensive when the movie was released, pointing out immediately that the Kimberley Process has improved the situation tremendously. The World Diamond Council embarked on a public relations campaign to diffuse the situation, costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million [source: PBS Online NewsHour]. The PR campaign centered on two main tenets. First, the conflict was exaggerated in the movie and second, that it was over with by the time the movie came out anyway.

Either the PR campaign worked or the public chose not to heed the film's warning. 2006 numbers sh­owed that the diamond industry continued to thrive despite the movie's release. The industry continues to be cautiously optimistic, however, since awareness of similar controversial issues has been known to snowball over time.­

Should you boycott African diamonds? The answer isn't as simple as you might think. Learn more on the next page.

Conflict Free Diamonds

Even many harsh critics of the current state of the African diamond trade tend to agree that shutting out the diamond industry would have a negative effect on many innocent people in the peaceful nations of Africa that rely on diamond mines for their livelihood. Several previously war-torn nations, such as Sierra Leone and Liberia, are finally out from under the thumb of diamond warlords. In fact, 2005 saw a peaceful Sierra Leone export more than $142 million worth of diamonds [source: Allafrica.com]. However, at the very least, areas of the Ivory Coast and the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to suffer at the hands of greedy diamond mongers.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Global Witness are calling on federal governments to regulate Kimberley Process countries, to ensure that the diamonds being imported and exported are completely conflict-free. Currently, Kimberley Process regulation is done voluntarily by the diamond dealers in their midst, rather than being controlled by a third party. These groups also fear a resurgence of diamond conflict if adequate control is not taken to prevent blood diamonds from entering legitimate trade. According to Amnesty International, the Kimberley Process simply leaves too many holes through which diamonds can be smuggled illegally. Until the diamond industry can say with 100 percent certainty that these outlets have been effectively sealed, human rights groups will continue to push for stricter regulations.

­For more information on Africa, diamonds and related topics, see the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Blood Diamond Action. http://www.blooddiamondaction.org/
  • Cockburn, Andrew. "Diamonds: The Real Story." National Geographic Magazine. March 2002. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/data/2002/03/01/html/ft_20020301.1.html
  • "Conflict Diamonds Receive Attention From Hollywood." PBS Online Newshour. Dec. 13, 2006. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/july-dec06/diamonds_12-13.html
  • De Beers.com. http://www.debeers.com/page/faqs#conflict
  • DiamondFacts.org. http://diamondfacts.org/
  • Diasource.com. http://www.diasource.com/fourcs.htm
  • History.com. http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_type_id=52827&display_order=2&mini_id=52826
  • Hultman, Tami. "Africa: "Blood Diamond" Entertains, Educates -- Djimon Hounsou, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly Confront Death and Diamonds in Sierra Leone." Allafrica.com. Dec. 8, 2006. http://allafrica.com/stories/200612080608.html
  • Internet Movie Database.http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0450259/
  • Miller, Talea. "Movie Sparks Debate Over Diamond Trade." PBS Newshour Extra. Dec. 4, 2006.http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/july-dec06/diamonds_12-04.html
  • Roach, John. "Blood Diamonds and How to Avoid Buying Illicit Gems." National Geographic News. Dec. 8, 2006.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061208-blood-diamonds.html
  • "The Diamond Deception." PBS NOVA. Feb. 1, 2000.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2703diamond.html
  • "The Diamond Empire." PBS Frontline. Feb. 1, 1994.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs/transcripts/1209.html
  • The Green Guide. http://www.thegreenguide.com/
  • The International Colored Gemstone Associationhttp://www.gemstone.org/gem-by-gem/english/tanzanite.html
  • "Truth and Justice." PBS Online Newshour. Jan. 23, 2003.http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/jan-june03/truth_&_justice_1-23.html
  • World Diamond Council.http://www.worlddiamondcouncil.com/

­