Media Watch: The Times Discovers Sierra Leone Diggers

If you don’t live in New York, you may not realize this New York Times article was kind of a big deal. It was placed in the top half of the front page of the Sunday New York Times, along with a nice big unpleasant photo of Sierra Leone diggers.

None of what the article says counts in any way as news (here’s my article last year), but the Times often sets the agenda for other news organizations, which means there will probably be more of these articles to come.

And while the article blames the government more than the industry for the problems in Sierra Leone, I’m sure many readers didn’t make it through the sometimes dense piece. Instead they just got the message, that, once again, the diamond industry is exploiting Africans.

(It should be noted that the article could have been worse. It doesn’t mention a) the child labor one sees in Sierra Leone mines; and b) the health risks miners face from spending all day in dirty water.)

How much does all this matter? Well, the industry can survive an article here and there, but it’s when the anti-diamond message gets reinforced that is dangerous. Someone the other day sent me a link about the problems at blueberry farms (don’t ask why.) This did not stop me from enjoying blueberries on my cereal this morning. But if I read a whole lot of other articles, and saw a movie called “Blood Blueberries,” I may think twice.

There seems to be a certain self-congratulatory feeling in the industry that the “Blood Diamond” movie did not seem to hurt Christmas sales. It certainly was heartening to see this sometimes fractious industry come together and present a united front. But people are kidding themselves if they think there was no damage to the industry’s reputation, both in the short- and long-term. Do a google blog search on the phrase “never buy a diamond.” You will find plenty of people who have sworn of this industry’s product. And think how many people feel that way that aren’t expressing themselves on-line.

Now what these people don’t realize – and the Times story sadly doesn’t mention – is that the worst thing people could do is to stop buying Sierra Leone diamonds. Diamonds account for 90% of Sierra Leone’s foreign currency earnings. It would be the equivalent of finding a person in intensive care and then attacking them with a baseball bat. And yet, it’s an understandable reaction. One company – Brilliantearth – has, rather despicably, built a business plan around it.

But the “not buying would be worse” argument only goes so far. In the end, these problems need to be addressed. The industry is paying attention, as Nicky Oppenheimer’s recent speech at CIBJO demonstrates. But the alluvial digger issue needs to command the attention the Kimberley Process once did. The Diamond Development Initiative is a great thing, involving serious and committed people, but it should be cranked up a notch – in fact, several notches. If the DDI is under-funded, let’s hold fund-raisers. The Kimberley Process holds meetings regularly – why can’t the equally important DDI?

Yes, fixing all this won’t be easy, but the industry has made remarkable progress on conflict diamonds, and I have no doubt it can go a long way to helping the diggers. It’s true, the conditions in Sierra Leone aren’t necessarily the industry’s fault, just as no one in the industry told Foday Sankoh to start cutting off people’s arms.  But this is the hand the industry has been dealt. Good businesses face challenges head-on, and we have to marshall our resources and get busy on this one.

JCK News Director