Polygon president Jacques Voorhees had no idea what to expect when he visited the West African country of Sierra Leone. He had heard about the role diamonds played in the now-settled civil war there and wanted to investigate for himself.
“I was intrigued and felt it was important to learn more about the issue,” he says. “I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about. So warlords were selling diamonds to support their activity. So what? Warlords typically loot and pillage the territory they conquer. Name a commodity where that doesn’t happen. The fact that there was this movement to indict one of the resources was puzzling. Plus it sounded like an adventure, and I figured, ‘Why not?’ “
So, with the help of an old friend who ran the local UNICEF program, he went and had “the most fascinating eight days of my life.”
He saw everything from the horrors of the amputee camps to “possibly the most beautiful beaches in the world.”
He was also struck by the fact that everyone seemed happy—especially now that the war is over.
“I don’t think I’ve met a group of happier, friendlier people in my life,” he says. “People are going to the beaches, they are going to the nightclubs. This is a country that’s been under curfew, so they have a lot of making up to do, party-wise.”
Voorhees dug for diamonds with local miners and met with government officials trying to establish a diamond industry, but he thought they had unrealistic expectations about the country’s wealth.
“The government thinks they own all these diamonds, they can make us all rich,” he says. “They believe there is this incredible panacea under the dirt. It seems so exotic and sexy, but diamond mining is a barely profitable business. I saw 200 people work for hours in the sun and not find a thing.”
He also is skeptical about whether the diamond industry is to blame for the country’s problems.
“If the Kimberley Process wants to do supply chain controls, I certainly have nothing against that,” he says. “It makes a statement that we as an industry are not unfeeling. A token gesture is perhaps better than no gesture at all.
“On the other hand, I think it’s hypocritical for the world to point the finger at the diamond industry when they could be doing so much more. We have to send the United Nations in to stop these warlords. We are at a point where the world can say, ‘Enough. We don’t tolerate these tinhorn dictators.’ That’s the road we should be going down, not making more paperwork for people in Antwerp.”