By Shantanu Guha Ray IANS | 5 months ago

Global experts from India and Dubai - hot spots of the world diamond trade - have called for restraint in what they call continued Western criticism of working conditions in diamond mines in Africa that contribute nearly 60 percent of the world's supplies.


Such criticism, they argue, are largely misplaced because the majority of African diamond mining and trade has turned clean years ago, and conflict diamonds - even as per the admission of the 81-member Kimberly Process (KP) - constitute less than 0.5 percent of the $1.2 billion annual trade.

"Anno 2013 diamonds are the best-controlled commodity in the world. More than 99.5 percent of the diamonds produced in the world fall under a certification regime. Central African Republic, Guinea and Venezuela do NOT even represent 0.5 percent of the world production. In reality, we probably speak about less than 0.2 percent (of world production that could be considered blood diamonds)," said Peter Meeus, Chairman of the Dubai Diamond Exchange, during last year's Angolan Diamond Centenary Conference.

The European Union's decision to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe after the July elections last year was another landmark step towards the global acceptance of the working conditions in African diamond mines.

"Usage of the words (blood diamonds) has become too generic. It is like painting everyone with the same tar. Even today the KP proves through its actions that it is by far the most efficient tool to avoid that diamonds are used to finance any form of civil war. In less than one month after the problem started in the Central African Republic, the KP has taken measures to assure that the CAR could not illegally export any of its diamonds," said Meeus.

"The KP has by and large regulated the rough diamond production. Can that be said of
the production of any other mineral? Better than any diplomatic initiative until now, the KP has made sure rebel groups cannot finance their bloody war any more with the income of rough diamond sales," Meeus added.

There are many who agree with Meeus. Some are from India, a world power in diamonds, and Dubai, an emerging centre of the world solitaire trade and the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The two, along with China, form the New Silk Route that is considered the main hub of world diamond trade.

India and China, interestingly, now have a 24 percent share of the world diamond market. Global diamond giant De Beers has already forecast that by 2020, the two countries will surpass the US, the world's biggest consumer, with a 40 percent market share.

"Barring one or two troubled nations, African mining is clean. From 15 percent, today conflict diamonds are less than 0.5 percent of the overall trade. Yet, many find it fancy to circulate images of child soldiers and impoverished workers in African diamond mines. It is time to look into the reality," says Sanjay Kothari, a top official of the Mumbai-based Gems & Jewelry Export Promotion Council (GJEPC), a state-owned organization that works closely with global diamond bodies.

The demand for such a debate is growing.

Interestingly, KP member countries - at their annual plenary in Johannesburg late last year - deliberated on points raised by both Meeus and Kothari. "It's not just only adding one or two phrases to the current definition, but it needs a much more involved engagement," said Welile Nhlapo, the outgoing KP chairman.

"We have put in place measures to strengthen our own internal controls and also to see how we can assist some of the countries where diamonds are still implicated," Nhlapo added.

South Africa, which chaired the KP in 2013, will make way for China in 2014.

Delegates attending the plenary found striking similarities between Nhalpo's points of view and those reflected by Meeus, who felt it is imperative for the African diamond industry to remain devoid of any reputation threat.

"For them to obtain full benefit from their natural resources it is imperative that both the diamonds and the diamond industry remain devoid of any reputation threat," Meeus said.

So far, the term "blood diamonds" has been used to identify stones used by rebel groups in conflict zones to finance their campaigns. That was in the past when such violence was routine across the African continent. But thanks to stringent measures adopted by the KP, only a few nations like CAR, Guinea and Venezuela today fall under such a category.

Siphamandla Zondi, Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, a Pretoria-based international relations think tank, agreed the KP had largely succeeded over the last decade in what it set out to do: it has reduced the percentage of blood diamonds from 15 percent to less than 0.5 percent of the overall diamond market.

Zondi said it would be great if KP member nations even quell that 0.5 percent trade (of blood diamonds). "Some diamonds are still moving around and causing problems. All those issues should come on board," Zondi said.

Dilip Mehta, chairman of the Antwerp-based Rosy Blue diamond company, said it was necessary for those in the diamond trade to understand that Africa's diamond mining landscape has been cleaned to a large extent.

"Those looking at Africa must look at that 99.5 percent part of the diamond chart that is clean and not remain hooked up on that one percent which is troublesome. It will be very unfair if that 0.5 percent bad image becomes the overriding image for the African diamond market," Mehta said in a recent interview.

He said the world needs to understand that diamonds are helping the African landscape to change and become vibrantly modern. "The diamond sector is generating funds for growth in nations once synonymous with unhygienic conditions, low jobs, high infant mortality and troubled droughts."

"Only a few nations do not comply with the Kimberly Process regulations. But the rest do, and it is an encouraging sign," added Mehta.

Agreed Meeus, arguing growth is the key to Africa's diamond business that was once haunted by some of the severest civil wars that wrecked the continent. "People across the world need to understand a correct picture of Africa. The diamond industry - thanks to big bucks international investment - is Africa's biggest hope to growth."

"So, isn't it rather time to get rid of this perception of being a dirty business? Which business is 100 percent clean? Which person is 100 percent perfect? Isn't 99.9 percent pretty well done? Because today there are hardly any conflict diamonds," says Meeus.

Most KP member countries agree. Such clarity is imperative for a nuanced understanding and changing equations of the world diamond trade.

After all, Africa knows what is best for Africa.

(09-02-2014-Shantanu Guha Ray has tracked changes in the world solitaire market for nearly a decade and is researching for a book on the subject. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shantanunewshound@gmail.com)

(Posted on 09-02-2014)