The illicit diamond trade has for years financed civil wars and human rights violations in countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, among others. It is estimated that 3.7 million people died in these wars in the 1980s and 1990s alone, while millions more were displaced. No wonder they are called blood diamonds. A full-fledged paradox of abundance for African countries; perhaps their cruellest example: wealth in natural resources becomes a cause of death and misery for the population.

The NGO Global Witness was the first to investigate and expose the outrages of the diamond trade by publishing the report A Rough Trade, in 1998. This document exposed the role of diamonds in financing the Angolan civil war and brought to light a global problem by uncovering the secretive practices and role of the diamond industry in these blood feuds, thereby pushing governments and the industry to take action. Thus the Kimberley Process (KP) was created, an international government certification scheme to end the trade in conflict diamonds.

As the Kimberley Process Civil Society Coalition and human rights NGOs have repeatedly stated, it is a limited and flawed proposal owing to a very narrow definition of conflict diamonds that excludes addressing the broader range of human rights violations linked to the diamond trade, among other issues.

Eighty per cent of diamonds are mined on an industrial scale, chiefly through open-pit or underground mining operations. On another scale, around 20% comes from ASM, which is undertaken informally in a large number of African countries, often using basic equipment such as sieves and pans (mostly alluvial mining). Both types of mining are problematic in terms of rights violations and environmental impacts, in much the same way as in the case of gold.

Responsible diamonds

While it is well known that the responsible mining sector is a market with myriad interests in which many unscrupulous companies seek to sell supposedly ethical materials under unreliable labels, in the case of diamonds we must be even more watchful.

In contrast to what we have seen for precious metals about the existence of two international standards for ASM that certify responsible sourcing and traceability throughout the supply chain, there is no equivalent for diamonds.

In our understanding, ideally responsible diamonds do not yet exist. They will be extracted through local artisanal and small-scale mining initiatives, in an environmentally friendly way, with the assurance that all the people involved benefit from decent and safe working conditions, that they receive a fair price, and that they are marketed by suppliers with the same ethical convictions in short and transparent circuits.

It is for this reason that many of the jewellery firms that work with responsible practices tend to opt for traceable diamonds from large-scale mining in countries such as Canada and Australia. This is because they deem them to be the “least bad” option, despite the problems to which they may also be linked, such as ecological impacts or impacts on the indigenous peoples who live in these territories. Diamonds from Canada are currently the most popular option, in particular since the closure of the Argyle mine in Australia.

Furthermore, in the case of diamonds, as with other gemstones, the abuses that can occur in other crucial parts of the supply chain, such as cutting and polishing, need to be addressed. Most diamonds are cut in Surat, India, where an estimated 100,000 children work as diamond polishers and cutters. Many of them are laid off when their eyesight is damaged. This also applies to Canadian diamonds, since 95% of these diamonds may also end up being cut in India.

In that regard, it is extremely challenging to choose which type of diamonds to work with and therefore to make recommendations. However, we have found the most ethical options in initiatives such as Ocean Diamonds, which offers natural marine diamonds that are harvested from the ocean by local divers off the coasts of Namibia and South Africa, and then cut in Johannesburg. We also consider Canadamark certification and diamonds from Botswana, which we can source from a choice of suppliers, including recycled diamonds and certain laboratory approaches such as Diamond Foundry. Laboratory diamonds are highly contested as a responsible jewellery option, but if there truly are synthetic diamonds with a low carbon footprint and created with renewable energy, they are worth looking into.

We recently heard about the Diamonds for Peace project, which is an inspirational experience for artisanal diamond mining in Liberia, run by a Japanese NGO. One of its future goals is to match mining cooperatives with international buyers through an approved exporter, allowing consumers in other countries to have access to ethically mined diamonds. If we are ever able to work with these stones, we will have found the ideally responsible diamond.