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Summary Article: DIAMONDS
from Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Valued both as gemstones and for their industrial uses, including as drill bits, diamonds have long been mined and traded in Africa. When they are bought and sold in order to purchase arms and fund internal violent conflicts, such as civil wars in Sierra Leone and Libera, these diamonds have become known as “conflict diamonds.”

Until the discovery of diamonds in Minas Gerais, Brazil (1720s), most diamonds had come from alluvial deposits in India and Kalimantan (Borneo). Brazil’s diamonds were discovered by the bandeirantes (explorers). The discovery changed Brazil, as people and economic power shifted away from the coast and to the southern and central parts of the country. African slaves were quickly put to work in diamond mining for the Portuguese government’s royal monopoly. The slaves who survived added an African flavor to Brazilian music, religion, and culture. From 1730 until 1870 Brazil supplied the world with gemstone quality diamonds. In the late 1800s diamonds were found in Venezuela and Guyana.

Diamonds were found in 1867 in the Cape Colony of southern Africa. At first the diamonds were taken from alluvial deposits. However, they soon were mined from blue kimberlite, found in ancient volcanic pipes located near the mining town of Kimberly. In 1888 Cecil John Rhodes formed De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. to control the vast production flowing from the African diamond fields.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the growing supply of diamonds interacted with the rising prosperity of both Europe and the United States to stimulate the demand for diamonds both for industrial uses and for gemstones as gifts. The hunt for diamonds led to numerous discoveries across Africa. Diamonds were found in 1908 in the German colony of Kolmanskop (later South West Africa, now Namibia) and in the 1930s in Sierra Leone. Today the world’s richest diamond mine is in Botswana at the the Jwaneng mine. Major diamond-producing countries on the African continent are the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Botswana, South Africa, Angola, Namibia, Ghana, Central African Republic, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe.

Miners pan for diamonds near Koidu in northeastern Sierra Leone in 2004. During the country’s 1991-2001 civil war, civilians were used as slaves to mine the diamonds that funded the rebels’ wartime efforts. Even with the end of the civil war in 2001, the diamond industry continues to struggle toward reducing the number of so-called conflict diamonds that enter the foreign market. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The instability and ethnic violence in Africa after the end of colonialism led, by the 1990s, to trafficking in conflict diamonds taken from mines, a trade dominated by criminal gangs and terrorist groups. Many innocent people in diamond-mining areas were killed or deliberately mutilated. The armed bands entered a diamond-producing area and deliberately chopped off a hand or a foot of men, women, and children to brutalize the people of the area so they would be psychologically as well as physically unable to resist or even to flee. The diamonds produced in these areas became blood or conflict diamonds. In Sierra Leone, the so-called Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was able to control much of the diamond-producing area, purchasing weapons with its diamond profits.

Terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, became financially involved in the diamond trade. Great profits were made from rough diamonds transported by terrorists to diamond centers for cutting and polishing before emerging into legitimate market streams. The U.S. government, although aware of the fact of Islamic terrorist trafficking in conflict diamonds, did little about it until after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In November 2002 a global movement among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other activists pressured the diamond industry and the governments of diamond-producing countries to take action on conflict diamonds. After a meeting in Kimberly, South Africa, the Kimberley Certification Process Scheme was adopted. In August 2003 the Kimberly Process, a joint government, international diamond industry, and civil society initiative for stemming the flow of conflict diamonds, was instituted.

The Kimberly Process has forty-three participants—including the European Community, Canada, Russia, and the African diamond producers. The participants in the Kimberly Process control an estimated 99.8 percent of the global production of rough diamonds. Part of the process is the development of a certification by diamond sellers that their diamonds are not conflict diamonds.

Many NGOs charge that the Kimberly Process is not working because it depends too much upon self-regulation. By 2006 nearly four million Africans in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo had been killed because of conflict diamonds. The International Criminal Court is seeking to prosecute war lords, gunrunners, and corporate executives selling conflict diamonds as war criminals and purchasers with involvement in genocide.

See also:

Brazil; Ghana; Kongo; Sierra Leone; South Africa, History and Politics; Zimbabwe

  • Bernstein, Harry. The Brazilian Diamond in Contracts, Contraband, and Capital. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.
  • Campbell, Greg. Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004.
  • Farah, Douglas. Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.
  • Fry, Carolyn. “Conflict Diamonds.” Times Educational Supplement. May 27, 2005.
  • Kanfer, Stefan. Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993.
  • Andrew J. Waskey

    Copyright © 2008 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

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