The landlocked Central African Republic has been in a state of civil war for over a decade as the government vies with Muslim and Christian forces for control of the incredibly impoverished county, displacing nearly 200,000 and killing thousands. Medical relief organizations claim the region is too dangerous to work in, despite the critical need for supportive care. Bloody conflict has effectively shredded the nation’s government, leaving it a rudderless nation – and one with an economy heavily driven by gold and diamonds. While the issue of conflict diamonds is a growing concern on the world stage, many are not aware of the consequences of the internal diamond trade, and what will happen when massive stores of diamonds are released on the market by unscrupulous Western diamond buyers.
That spells trouble, as it’s likely to increase the market for blood diamonds in addition to tainting the hard-fought certification process used to control the diamond market. While the Kimberley Process isn’t perfect, it makes an attempt at keeping such stones off the market, but it requires the cooperation of participants – and for some firms, it appears that money may win out over other factors, driving a return to the conflict diamond trade. International charities like Amnesty International are calling on the government to confiscate stores of diamonds to ensure they aren’t released on the global market – and to make it unprofitable to traffic in them in the first place.
When people think of “conflict diamonds,” they often think of stones hacked from the landscape of nations with rich natural supplies of diamonds and then sold overseas to finance the purchase of weapons and other supplies. The Central African Republic, however, is officially banned from diamond sales because of concerns about their contributions to the ongoing civil war. Instead, they’ve become a powerful form of internal currency, with vying forces buying and selling in both diamonds and gold, but also charging taxes, protection fees and more to diamond miners. Those struggling to eke out a living from their mines pay for everything they earn, and often end up short thanks to the clever calculus of the internal diamond industry. Forced labor, including child slavery, is also common at diamond mines.
Some of the stones are smuggled to neighboring nations in an attempt to sell them to companies willing to look the other way. Others, however, are stockpiled, as many are counting on an eventual lift of the sales ban and an opportunity to flood the market with diamonds, bringing in a steady supply of both cash and goods. Even now, some firms are descending on those stocks to purchase stones, and once they enter the supply chain, they’re impossible to chase – which means that ethical consumers can’t guarantee that they know where their diamonds are from, even when they purport to be certified using the proprietary Kimberley Process.
The value of conflict diamonds is a consequence of the continued treatment of the diamond as a commodity – the stones are actually relatively abundant and easy to synthesize in the lab, but their supplies are controlled and many consumers are uneasy about lab-grown diamonds, feeling that the stones aren’t authentic, even though they’re chemically identical. Closer scrutiny of the Central African Republic could help limit the sale of these diamonds, but it wouldn’t solve the larger problem. Some have suggested taking advantage of it, confiscating the diamonds, selling them and giving the proceeds to the people, but given the corrupt nature of the government and the state of the civil war, this could end badly, with the stones actually fueling more conflict.
International intervention in the Central African Republic will likely need to take several forms, with a stop to the diamond trade being only one of them, but the fact that the world is still struggling with illicit diamond sales is a testimony to the grip diamonds have on the international imagination. Even knowing that the stones come with a taint of blood – either directly or by association with the industry – consumers still clamor for them.