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A fair trade approach to Africa's diamonds

A US company brings fair trade principles to Africa's diamond industry and aims to improve the life of diamond miners.

By Jina MooreGuest blogger / September 28, 2010

Miners wash gravel in large sieves looking for the elusive glint of rough diamond in the mining pits outside Koidu town in Kono district, eastern Sierra Leone, May 23, 2007.

Tugela Ridley/Christian Science Monitor

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Recently, I learned about The Clarity Project, an effort to bring fairly-mined, fairly-sourced diamonds into the jewelry market. Impressed by the venture and the website, I did an email interview with Jesse Finfrock, one of the founders. In addition to making diamond engagement rings a possibility again, The Clarity Project is a fascinating exercise in making the market in luxury goods work for the people who literally pull the luxury out of the ground.

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As the Congo Minerals Act continues to generate attention and controversy, The Clarity Project may have a thing or two to show us -- not just about how to deal with minerals responsibly, but about how ordinary concerned citizens can educate themselves into savvy business-changers.

JM: Where did this all begin?

TCP: Like many progressive, socially aware people in our generation, we long had the impression that the diamond industry was hopelessly corrupt, superficial, and should probably just be boycotted altogether. But as we met with miners and visited their communities we were introduced to people whose livelihoods and social systems depended on diamonds. We heard from them that boycotting the industry would hurt their communities, which are already struggling with urban migration. Indeed, it was happening all around as the diamond industry shrank due to the global recession. Boycotting, we learned, wasn't going to help anybody.

JM: Tell me about the first mine you visited.

TCP: The first "mine" we visited wasn't really a mine at all. Throughout the diamond rich regions of Africa, self-employed people are illegally digging and sifting through the tailings of old mines. At one such site alongside a road in South Africa, we were able to stop and speak with some of these workers, who were happy to share their experiences. Some were recently unemployed from the recession, and others had been digging at this location for months in hopes of striking it rich. They told us about one man who, from a single stone he found, was able to build his mother a big new house in the community across the road.

But we also heard stories of despair. Many had never found anything, or if they had, they had kept quiet for fear of being robbed. We learned of one neighbor who unknowingly sold a large stone for very little and upon later discovering that it had been worth tens of thousands, took his own life. These workers also risk long prison sentences for mining on land owned by large and sometimes foreign companies. And although they often come up empty handed, it is a risk they are willing to take in the face of very few income options. At this site in South Africa, the workers had long desired to form a collective through which they could formalize their work, but their efforts have come up short time and again. So they continue without permission.

While this type of work is officially illegal and we do not support it, it produces many of the diamonds that enter the world market. These miners told us that foreign dealers would occasionally stop and buy their stones, something we witnessed later on. So we could see first hand that the official story of how diamonds enter the market can be quite different from the reality on the ground. It's impossible to know the number, but it's clear that many such stones are finding their way onto today's jewelry.

JM: Where do you work?

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