Up to 20% of the world’s gem-quality diamonds are produced by artisanal miners – people who dig for diamonds using rudimentary equipment. Often the whole family is involved, including children. There are 1.5 million artisanal miners in Africa and South America, working in 18 different countries. The work is hard, dirty and dangerous. Because gravel must be washed in order to find the gems, much of a digger’s day is spent standing in stagnant water. Health conditions are bad and mine sites are incubators for disease. Miners often face exploitation, human rights abuses, and live in extreme poverty.
Like many other mining activities, artisanal diamond mining is environmentally unsound. In addition, it is uncontrolled. Huge tracts of potentially farmable land are rendered useless because the topsoil is shovelled away leaving innumerable craters and fetid ponds in their wake. Rivers are crudely dammed and diverted, destroying fisheries and polluting water.
Most artisanal diamond mines operate outside of government regulation and oversight. In some places, artisanal mining is illegal, in others, site operators do not have the proper license or are encroaching on somebody else’s claim. Even with a license, mining operations in remote areas can easily by-pass the legal and fiscal systems of the formal economy, because the governments do not have the resources to monitor site activities or supply chains.
Jewelry supply chain
In addition to being produced ethically, rough stones must be traceable. Traceability requires compliance and transparency at every step of the chain of custody, from production to export and all the way through manufacturing to retail. If at each stage of the chain of custody the tracing mechanism is not in place, the jewelry industry and the consumer are left with a product that does not respond to their requirements for guaranteed ethical, responsible sourcing.
In the 1990s, rebel groups in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angola and elsewhere took control of alluvial diamond mining in order to finance war, hence the term “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds.”
The Kimberley Process, which began in 2003, was created to enforce a legally binding global certification system for rough diamonds to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the legal trade. The KP Certification Scheme (KPCS) now involves 81 countries and controls the movement of all rough diamonds from mine to market, certifying that they do not come from conflict zones.
The KPCS does not however address the ongoing possibility of human rights abuses, environmental degradation and other developmental challenges.