Fighting diamond smuggling in Africa

Liberia lifts its six-year-old moratorium on the mining, sale, and export of diamonds on Monday.

By , Correspondent

The diamond pits of Sierra Leone haven't changed much since the war ended five years ago.

Spread across the muddy, cratered moonscapes, hundreds of hunched men still break their backs day after day sifting through wet gravel with crude shovels and sieves.

Last winter the Oscar-nominated movie 'Blood Diamond' cast Hollywood's bright lights on the brutality of a war that was funded by diamonds dug by hand out of these mud pits then exchanged for weapons and exported to Europe where they were cut, polished, packaged, and sold to consumers seeking a symbol of enduring love.

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Since the diamond-fueled wars in Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia have ended, the amount of diamonds coming from conflict zones has dropped from 15 percent during the mid-1990s to only 0.2 percent today. With the help of international organizations and donor nations, Sierra Leone has made great strides in regulating its diamond industry, and Liberia just announced that it will lift its six-year-old moratorium on the mining, sale, and export of diamonds on Monday.

But, despite the gains, shortcomings remain.

"Smuggling is still happening across West Africa and as a consumer you still can't be sure of what you're getting," says Annie Dunnebacke, a campaigner at the London-based advocacy group Global Witness.

In 2005, experts estimated that up to 20 percent of the country's diamond production was being smuggled.

Some dispute this figure but none deny that smuggling persists. "Smuggling is there but it is not organized like during the war," says Jonathan Shaka, a government mines official.

Last year, official exports of rough diamonds were worth $136 million, but as the war raged in 1999 the figure was a paltry $1.2 million, leading experts to estimate that rebels in control of the mines during the war were smuggling up to $125 million of diamonds a year.

Advances in regulating the trade

The biggest advance for regulating the diamond trade came in 2003 with the launch of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was set up to ensure that the gems are not associated with conflict through a system of self-regulation and certificates by which the origin of any rough diamond can be proved.

The Kimberley Process was established specifically to prevent the trade in blood diamonds used to fund rebel groups, but Ms. Dunnebacke argues that smuggling any diamonds undermines that process by allowing the trading networks to persist.

Leon Boksenbojm, a diamond expert and consultant to Sierra Leone's government, acknowledges that smuggling goes on. "The problem of smuggling is not specific to West Africa but it is more acute because the borders are porous," he says. In a recent documentary released as part of the two-disc Blood Diamond DVD, Sierra Leonean filmmaker Sorious Samura showed just how easy it is to walk across the border with a pocketful of diamonds and trade them to dealers without any certificates to guarantee that the diamonds are conflict-free.

Sierra Leone leads the way

To combat smuggling, the Sierra Leonean government last month launched the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which calls on companies to publish what they pay and governments to publish what they receive, bringing transparency and accountability to a notoriously secretive industry.

Mr. Bokensbojm says the answer is to harmonize legislation and tax codes in the region thereby removing the incentive to smuggle. Implementing EITI across West Africa is an important step toward this, he says, pointing out that other countries lag behind Sierra Leone.

Are your diamonds 'conflict-free'?

Among the designer clothes stores on London's Bond Street are a number of retailers, including De Beers and Graff, who sell some of the estimated $62 billion worth of diamond jewelery bought worldwide each year.

Paying lip-service to the Kimberley Process, one Bond Street jeweler confidently asserted that all his new diamonds were conflict-free. He claimed to have certificates proving this but could not produce them. A survey by Global Witness and Amnesty International in May found that most British retailers were not doing enough to ensure that the diamonds they sell are conflict-free.

Whether or not a particular retailer's stones are conflict-free, the disparity between the consumer and producer ends in the diamond chain remains stark.

A half-carat diamond engagement ring selling for close to $6,000 on Bond Street may have begun its journey in a wooden sieve wielded by a man such as Kelly Koroma, who earns $1.50 a day standing thigh-deep in muddy water in one of the pits that ring Koidu.

"Life is difficult here," he mumbles between shovelfuls of gravel. "I am just surviving."

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