Diamond Development Issues Discussed at Rapaport Conference

A disparate group of diamond industry notables and onlookers – from representatives of the State Dept and World Bank to “Blood Diamond” director Ed Zwick – gathered together at the New York Hilton Monday to discuss how the industry can handle the thorny problem of artisinal diamond diggers in West Africa.

“There are a million artisanal diggers, and they are part of your industry,” said Partnership Africa Canada’s Ian Smillie, who is also chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative, the industry-NGO group examining these issues. “We want to give them a meaningful stake – not just a hard day’s work knee deep in mud.”

Martin Rapaport, who hosted and organized the event as part of his annual conference, drove this point home in later remarks: “We have a responsibility to help the people of Sierra Leone.” He said Africa’s best hope was in private sector solutions:  “Sustainable economic development is the only way to drive Africa forward.”

Many warned that the problems of artisanal diggers was a potential public relations problem for the industry, and Rapaport worried an “effective boycott” would deny the diggers the little income they are currently getting.  Matt Runci, chairman of Jewelers of America, noted we are seeing a “generational shift” where younger consumers are more interested in the impact of what they buy.

Most attendees hoped the coalition of industry, NGOs and government that led to Kimberley would be harnessed to solve this problem.

“We must not lose sight that, as a collective, we can make a difference,” said Eli Izhakoff, chairman of World Diamond Council.

The conference included an extensive discussion period of development issues and possible solutions, including De Beers’ pilot project for artesinal diggers in Tanzania and Rapaport’s plan for “Fair Trade” stones. Rapaport announced plans for a “Fair Trade Diamond and Jewelry Association.”

Zwick’s appearance caused the most interest. He impressed many as impassioned and articulate, although his speech was often scathing in its criticism of the industry.

Billing himself as the only attendee “with no discernable agenda other than my own,” he admitted that he couldn’t tell where Sierra Leone was on the map before he made his film.

But he said making the film changed his perspective on the world, and it was suffused with the “rage and rawness” he saw in Africa. He later argued the industry owed “restitution” for the events portrayed in his film.

“Every single member of the diamond industry – consciously or not — benefited from the stones that ruined Sierra Leone,” he said. “As we move forward, there is an obligation to look backward. You cannot wipe clean the slate of an unsavory past.”

He said the industry needed to do better for the diggers and countries that supply the world’s diamonds.

“Relative to the bounty the industry has taken [from West Africa], it has left nothing at all,” he said.  “The diamond industry needs to do more than talk. I’m talking about a paradigm shift.  If you really believe diamonds equal love, what greater love is there of one’s fellow man? Imagine if a woman who receives a diamond sees not only is she getting love, but she is giving love in return.”

He also seemed to repeat his criticism of the Diamond Information Center’s “Raise Your Right Hand for Africa,” which donates $10,000 to African charities to celebrities who wear right hand rings to award ceremonies, calling the actresses who participated in the promotion “clueless.”

Zwick also took a little flack as well, particularly from some attendees who thought the film — and Hollywood in general – gave an unrelentingly negative image of Africa. He responded his film was not “set at a time when there was a lot of happiness.”

“I will grant you a film is necessary reductionist and over-simplified,” he said. “You can’t begin to deal with these issues in their full complexity. But you can give them a breath of life and sense of urgency.”

Earlier at a press conference, Zwick told JCK that he was interested in hearing all the different opinions. “I discovered no industry is a monolith,” he said. He later said he was trying to “provoke, even inspire” attendees.

“If the intent [of my film] was to raise awareness, I’d like to say in all modesty that has been accomplished,” he said.

The conference drew a healthy assortment of industry critics and NGOs, including Global Witness’ Alex Yearsley. Yearsley surprised many by calling the Kimberley Process “a remarkable achievement” that is “getting a lot of unfair criticism” for not including side issues like child labor and environmental issues. “We should feel rightfully proud of all that’s been accomplished,” he added.

At another point, he noted that “as I speak to you, there are people who are being ripped off, people being murdered, people being shot” over diamonds. He added, “This doesn’t have anything to do with you, it’s not you fault,” but said the industry had to “take responsibility” for these situations.

In fact, Yearsley was so conciliatory Izhakoff noted his words are “very different than what he’s been saying on television.”

Yearsley did show a much-talked-about video from Sierra Leonean filmmaker Sorious Samura, of a 47th Street diamond dealer offering stacks of cash for a rough stone Samura said did not have a Kimberley certificate.

Later, industry officials asked Yearsley to give him the name of the dealer, whose face was obscured and voice was altered, so they could report him to authorities and ban him from the industry. Yearsley said he did not have it available, noting the filmmakers felt “threatened.”

It’s worth noting that possibly some of the toughest comments about the industry came from Cecilia Gardner of the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, during a discussion on smuggling and skirting the law.

She noted that “there is a culture in the diamond industry that has accepted this kind of [illegal] conduct for generations. That culture has to change to compliance with strict legal principles. If you are solicited to engage in an activity you know to be in violation of the law, you need to say something to the authorities.”