With Valentine's Day a few days behind us, let's have some straight talk about diamonds. For many lovebirds, diamonds are the perfect expression of affection. Through catchy advertising, jewelry companies all over the U.S. have convinced us that diamonds are the ultimate symbol of love and lasting happiness. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But if we take a moment to consider the lives of people who mine our diamonds, we realize the picture is not so romantic. Did you know 250 tons of earth are mined to produce a single one-carat diamond? [Diamond Development Initiative]
That earth doesn’t move itself; there are a lot of people involved in the excavation and processing of all those symbolic rocks. And did you know that the United States comprises 40 percent of the world’s diamond market? That’s nearly half [gia.edu]! China and India are also major players, with demand increasing each year [Forbes].
On the supply side, most of the world’s raw diamonds come from African countries. Russia and Canada also produce a large portion of the global supply [geology.com]. But no matter where you live in the world, it’s important for consumers to know the circumstances under which many diamond miners work.
Let’s start with artisanal mining, also called alluvial mining. This type of small-scale mining (unlike pit mining) unearths diamonds that have been carried over millions of years by wind and water to their current positions [Business Insider]. In this industry, 13 million people around the world labor manually with simple tools and equipment [Diamond Development Initiative]. But alluvial mining affects not just those 13 million workers directly; an additional 80 to 100 million people in mining communities rely on this industry as well [Diamond Development Initiative]. Because this type of mining usually takes place in the informal sector, it escapes much of the legal framework that regulates human rights in the more visible part of the supply chain. In the absence of the proper regulatory framework, workers’ lives are at stake; even when laws exist, the small-scale nature of the mining makes them challenging to apply. For this reason, alluvial mining is the most likely form of mining to use forced or child labor. Human rights infractions in the diamond supply chain overall include low or no pay, dangerous working conditions, child labor, forced labor, violence, and the fueling of conflict.
Diamond miners in the informal (small-scale) sector produce 15 percent of the world’s diamonds, yet they make only about one dollar per day. That means about a million workers in Africa live off one dollar each day, no matter how much they dig [Brilliant Earth]. Additionally, independent miners lack access to global markets, so they have no choice but to sell to middle-men at below market prices. Living in poverty, mining communities often lack access to running water and sanitation, and they suffer from hunger, illiteracy, and a high rate of infant mortality. Further, these long-term problems exist alongside the daily hazards of diamond mining. Diamond miners work with the dangers of mudslides, collapsing walls, and the risk of drowning. Unfortunately, many diamond miners lack the safety equipment and proper tools they need. Making matters worse, small-scale mining is too often conducted without training or expertise.
Think about it…
Consider these unsafe working conditions, and add children to the equation. Child labor is a huge problem in the informal diamond mining sector, especially during wartime. One survey revealed that 46% of miners in the Lunda Norte province of Angola were between 5 and 16 years old [Brilliant Earth]. Health and safety risks aside, a child’s time working in the mines is also time not working in school. Miners use children to reach small, narrow spaces, putting them in life-threatening positions. Child labor has been evident in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone as well as Angola.
Children are exploited not only in the excavation part of the supply chain, but also in the cutting and polishing stage. Child labor is believed to be widespread in India, where 90 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut and polished [Facts and Details]. Children working in the cutting and polishing phase can be forced to work as long as 16 hours per day.
Forced labor is no stranger to the diamond supply chain, particularly during times of war. For example, in 2008 Zimbabwean soldiers forced communities to mine for diamonds on the army’s behalf [BBC]. Those who resisted suffered beatings, rape, and torture. The following year, the army used forced and child labor to mine in the Marange fields of eastern Zimbabwe.
In many cases, debt bondage renders workers unable to quit diamond mining. In these situations a “creditor” rigs conditions so that the debtor can never pay off the debt, therefore remaining in bondage indefinitely. Bonded labor is especially prevalent in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many women and girls are trafficked from the DRC into diamond mining camps in Sierra Leone, where they work as bonded laborers [Verite].
You know that movie wasn’t fiction, right?
And you’ve no doubt heard about “blood diamonds,” or you may remember the 2006 film Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Blood diamonds, or conflict diamonds, are stolen or mined illegally. They are sold to fund rebel armed forces or terrorist groups, and some sources say they have raised billions of dollars to fund civil wars and conflicts in African countries. Conflict diamonds come predominantly from Angola, the DRC, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone [photius.com]. When people don’t follow orders to excavate diamonds in poor conditions, they can be threatened, killed, or dismembered.
Ready for some good news, yet?
So what should Americans, as the world’s largest consumers of diamonds, know about the companies that want to sell to us shiny baubles? De Beers and ALROSA (Russian diamond giant) are the biggest players here, together producing almost half the world’s diamonds [resourceinvestor.com]. BHP and Rio Tinto are two other big players. These four companies together produce the majority of the world’s diamonds. De Beers has made unethical choices, including operating a cartel in the US and artificially propping up prices. The company also contributed to numerous taxes in South Africa, which led to migrant workers living in poor conditions [St. Antoninus Institute].
Happily, there are several companies that understand the importance of respecting human rights along the supply chain! Here are a few companies known for their ethical standards:
Tiffany & Co.
What are these companies doing right? Some, like Brilliant Earth, simplify their supply chains by working with laborers directly to ensure those workers receive a greater share of economic value [read more]. Some companies are supporting the development of fair trade diamonds (for which there is no certification yet). Additionally, some ethical companies like to source their diamonds from Canada or Botswana, because these countries have labor rights protections in place [Huffington Post]. In Botswana, diamond revenues actually go back into enriching the society – and we hope to see more countries follow this trend (too many governments keep the revenues to themselves for political power).
Now that you know, we hope that consumers who like a little glam can pause to think about the sourcing of diamonds and the practices of the companies they like. When you know what your money supports you can make responsible decisions, and you can feel better about your purchase! To learn about organizations that are geared toward human rights along the diamond supply chain, visit these links:
Partnership Africa Canada (PAC): http://www.pacweb.org/en/
Diamond Development Initiative (DDI): http://www.ddiglobal.org/
Madison Dialogue: http://www.fairjewelry.org/madison-dialogue-standards-for-ethical-diamonds/
Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI): http://eiti.org/
Kimberly Process Certification Scheme (KCPS): http://www.kimberleyprocess.com/
Questions? Comments? Talk to us @phbalancedfilms or Facebook.
Editor's Note: Thanks to Becky Ballard for her research, which contributed to this post.