Sunday, February 04, 2007

Diamonds' dull lustre

THE film, Blood Diamond, depicting the savagery behind the gem trade, has sent shivers through the industry.

Now desperate dealers are bribing celebrities to make a statement by wearing them.

A village burns on Sierra Leone's civil war-stricken diamond fields. Bodies litter the bush and shocked survivors are lined up by a rebel commander whose forces have just razed their homes and butchered defenceless family members and neighbours.

He is not satisfied with the extent of the bloodshed. With a bark and a gesture he summons forward two youths from among his followers.

Though barely more than children, they are clearly high on drugs. And both are swinging machetes for the blood sacrifice they are about to demand.

Seizing the right arms of their chosen victims, the young pair bring their blades crashing down, severing hands as a warning to the whole village not to challenge their authority.

Such horrifying scenes were common in Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war.

"Chopping off right hands or even whole limbs was a strategy used by the rebels to promote their power and spread fear," says Peter Komora, who witnessed the carnage in his native Sierra Leone, West Africa.

"Often it was their child soldiers, as young as seven, delegated to carry out the amputations. Can you imagine what that did to them?"

That conflict was mostly financed by diamond smuggling and its legacy is a nation that still bears the emotional and physical scars of the West's lust for the glittering gems.

Among the wounded are tens of thousands of amputees whose limbs were severed and who thus endure a life of hardship in that benighted nation.

One can only hope they never hear the new battle cry from the diamond industry, as it faces an assault on its credibility and profits.

FEARING a consumer backlash in the wake of the controversial film that exposes the dark past of the gem trade, Blood Diamond, the industry has financed a multi-million dollar promotional PR campaign to limit the damage.

The industry's foot soldiers are an army of celebrities who are being offered inducements to wear their diamonds in public. And the campaign slogan? "Raise Your Right Hand" (the better to display your sparkling jewellery).

Unwitting it may be. But it is hard to think of a more crassly offensive tagline to those men and women in Sierra Leone who have no right hand to raise, but who have paid a far higher price for diamonds than the celebrities ever will.

So what is a "blood diamond" and why the fuss about the Raise Your Right Hand campaign? Also known as a "conflict diamond", the blood diamond is a rock that has been mined in one of the world's war zones, usually in Africa.

The continent supplies 65 per cent of the annual international supply of the gemstone. And a "blood diamond" is one sold by parties acting for one of the warring factions, to fund the continuation of their military operations.

A story circulating in Sierra Leone's major diamond mining region illustrates who benefits most from the country's most precious natural resource.

It tells of a local peasant woman who, while digging in her potato patch, found a stone she believed was a diamond. She asked her pastor's opinion.

Satisfied as to what he was holding, he gave her the equivalent of $35 for it and sent her on her way; the pastor sold the rock to a diamond dealer for $130,000; the dealer had the stone weighed and classified by the government mining department in Freetown, which determined it was 156 carats of diamond, valued at $1,273,000; the stone was sold at auction to a Saudi Arabian diamond merchant for $254,000 more than that valuation -- about 40,000 times more than its finder was paid.

Similar stories quickly spread and threatened the industry with a consumer backlash.

Then came Blood Diamond to add to their woes. And the Hollywood film has also, inadvertently, shed light on the current conditions in Africa's diamond fields -- even those no longer affected by conflict.

So the $15 billion-a-year industry has retaliated, using the only weapon it knew might counter the negatives: star power.

Stars have been offered almost $33,000 -- to be paid to an African charity of their choice -- to wear big diamond rings on their right hands at public events.

The pre-publicity for the Raise Your Right Hand For Africa campaign stated: "Hollywood's leading female nominees and presenters are invited to proudly wear a Diamond Right-Hand Ring on this year's red carpet at one of the upcoming 2007 awards shows: Golden Globes, 49th Annual Grammy Awards or Academy Awards.

"The diamond industry hopes Hollywood's leading ladies will help generate up to $130,000 for key projects in southern Africa."

On the red carpet at the Golden Globes awards in California last month, Beyonce Knowles presented her bauble to the paparazzi, like a boxer bares his fists to a challenger.

Jennifer Lopez was another recipient of the Raise Your Right Hand largesse, though a spokesman for the star denied she took part.

The World Diamond Council, which is behind the campaign, has set up a website to spread the message that the diamond trade is not only ethical, but a vital source of income for Third World nations.

Link to Diamonds' dull lustre | Sunday Herald Sun