Conflict Over Conflict-Free Diamonds in Zimbabwe

14 12 2010

Are you a conscious shopper?  When you buy lumber or wood furniture, do you always buy it from a certified sustainable source?  When you buy clothes, do you check to make sure the company doesn’t use sweatshop labor?  Is your chocolate fair-trade?  Are your diamonds conflict-free?

Is there really any way to know?

Despite having the best intentions to use your consumer dollars to lobby for human rights and sustainable practices, and despite the hard work of NGOs with their certification schemes, it can be nearly impossible to know where your money is actually going.

Zimbabwe’s Blood Diamonds

Zimbabwe’s Chiadzwa region, near the border of Mozambique, is the source of a large percentage of the world’s diamonds.  In the last few years, Mugabe’s soldiers have been strafing independent miners with machine guns and forcing them to work in the mines as virtual slaves before smuggling the gems out of the country for sale.  The diamonds are often smuggled through Mozambique, which is not a party to the Kimberly Process, the primary international certifying scheme for diamonds.  The money from these diamonds has funded much of Mugabe’s brutal regime in Zimbabwe, which is why the diamonds have not been cleared for sale by the Kimberly Process.

It would make your buying decision easier if that was the end of the story.  The diamonds aren’t certified, so they shouldn’t show up on the market, right?  Wrong.  In the last few months, South Africa, Namibia and Angola have all said that they would allow Chiadzwa diamonds to be mixed in with their own certified diamonds for sale to international markets if the Chiadzwa diamonds are not approved.  They believe that the Government of Zimbabwe has met the demands of the Kimberly Process and should now be approved.   According to a news source in Zimbabwe, though, “the military has continued its brutal control of Chiadzwa and there have been continued reports of abuses at the military’s hands. This has included reports of intimidation of local villagers, forced labour and rampant smuggling.”

The Kimberly Process has been going back-and-forth on whether or not to certify the diamonds, feeling the pressure both from African nations that want them certified, and international human rights groups that are fighting the certification.  The United States still has sanctions in place that don’t allow U.S.-based diamond dealers to knowingly purchase diamonds from this region, and this ban is likely to stay in place regardless of the decision by Kimberly.  One way or another, the validity and authority of the Process will be questioned once the final decision is made.

Illegal Products Can Slip Through the Cracks of Any Certification Scheme

While “blood diamonds” have gotten a lot of attention in the media after the movie with DiCaprio came out, not every product has such a heavy-hitting spokesperson.  All certification schemes, be they fair trade coffee, sustainable forestry, non-DRC coltan, or conflict-free diamonds have chinks in their armor and can’t be perfect.  Wherever humans are involved, there are people who can be bought off.  Wherever borders are permeable, as they are in much of Africa, smuggling can take place, confusing the origin of any product.  You can buy illegally-cut mahogany from Uganda and poached Ivory from Zambia, all through legal channels, because of these weaknesses.

Certification schemes are an important part of our increasingly-globalized economy.  We need other people and organizations to watch out for us, because we simply can’t do enough research into every single product we use.  These watchdog groups also put pressure on oppressive regimes or industries and make it a lot harder for them to abuse their employees, their citizens or the environment.  They are a huge improvement over the free-for-all a few decades ago when nobody was watching, and it is much harder to hide anything in this connected world.  Buying products that are certified is, for the most part, much better for people and the planet.

But we can’t just sit back and assume that these certification schemes will do all the work for us, because they can’t.  We still need to do at least some research, and then make our decisions.  If 80% of certified diamonds on the market truly are conflict-free, is that a high enough percentage to make it worth buying that ring and supporting that industry?  Only you can make that decision.


If you are inspired to do so, please put your answers in the comments section so that we can all benefit from your thoughts:

  1. Do you try to buy products that have been certified (ie. Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, etc)?  If so, why?  If not, why not?
  2. Are there specific products that you try to do research on before making a purchase?
  3. What are the best resources you have come across for researching the origins of products?

Read More About Zimbabwe’s Chiadzwa Diamonds:

Africa plans to subvert Zim diamond ban

Conflict & Blood Diamonds: Zimbabwe

US$1 billion Marange diamonds looted

Critics step up call for Kimberley Process Reform

Mines Minister insists full diamonds sales will resume

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala



3 responses

15 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

Yes, the process isn’t perfect for any certification, but having the process in place I think raises public awareness in the first place, and puts pressure on governments and corporations to do it better. IN the absence of an alternative, I still think shopping fair trade and certified is better than nothing.

Devin (Mark’s wife)

14 12 2010

Thanks Mark for this “great awakening” article that things are not always as they seem. We extensively researched the purchase of hardwood floors recently. Every company had all the lingo right to explain how “green” they were. It came down also to an aesthetic choice, and fortunately the one we liked had good documentation. But having lived in Uganda we both know how easy it is to get good documentation. In fact often the bribe is less costly than the real certification. Overall consuming less seems to be the best strategy ( now that we have the floor…..).

15 12 2010
Mark Jordahl

I think you hit the nail on the head, Charles. Buying less reduces your impact overall. And we do still need floors and such, so doing the research, like you did, around our major purchases is an important thing to do.

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