30 January 2007

Blood Diamond explains why This Is Africa (TIA)

It’s not everyday that you find a Hollywood film influencing social change. But, with ‘Blood Diamond’, director Edward Zwick may make a difference so global that his film may actually initiate political and economic change across the world. In fact, from the message at the end of the film and from reports in the media, I hear that, although the concept of a ‘blood diamond’ has already tainted the international diamond trade, Zwick’s Hollywood film is likely to carry this disgrace further.

The disgrace is the origin, or source, of blood diamonds: how thousands of the poor in Sierra Leone are forced to mine for diamonds in muddy pits, in the heat and the rain, for less than Rs.4 per day. Many of these diggers (as they are called) succumb to an early death or, as in the 1990s, either killed or get their hands chopped off by the rebels (the Revolutionary United Front – RUF). These poor live on the hope that if they find a diamond, and can take it out of the pits to the nearest buyer (the first point of purchase in a long trade channel), it could transform their lives forever.

At the end of that trade channel is the consumer, the woman, in the upper echelons of society, to whom a diamond is the epitome of love and beauty and glamour… forever. Little does she know that that sparkling little diamond on her ring is the product of blood shed by one, or many more, of the poorest of poor struggling to survive in a small country in Africa. To be fair to her, it’s difficult to know. It’s difficult to separate the blood diamonds (i.e. conflict diamonds) from the diamonds legally mined and traded in the world diamond market. After all, millions of diamonds are traded each year. The diamond industry is a US$60 billion a year business.

What makes the film ‘Blood Diamond’ extraordinary is that it aims to create an awareness of blood diamonds internationally, with the hope of influencing end-consumers into checking the source of the diamonds they purchase, and rejecting a blood diamond in favour of a legal one. This is, indeed, a mighty task since there are millions of diamond consumers across the world, and the World Diamond Council is not going to take all this negative publicity lying down. There is, of course, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (established in 2003) to monitor any abuses that may take place.

However, our film’s story relates to an incident in 1999 (much before the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme came into being), when a Sierra Leonean fisherman, who is forced to become a digger, discovers a large pink diamond in the Kono mines. Perhaps not the incident, but the history certainly checks out… adding authenticity to the film. That, in the 1990s, rebels in Sierra Leone (the RUF), with help from Liberia, financed the blood diamond trade, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, maiming just as many, and creating brigades of child soldiers who were brainwashed into committing atrocities, the seriousness of which they were too innocent to realise.

‘Blood Diamond’, the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio (as a White Rhodesian mercenary diamond smuggler), Djimon Hounsou (as the Sierra Leonean fisherman-digger who finds the large pink diamond and hides it), and Jennifer Connelly (as a journalist pursuing the blood diamond story), brings all of this to the surface in proper Hollywood style, with ample doses of heroism and thrill thrown in… along with love, introspection and some spiritual philosophy… amidst the brutality and the killings. It’s a grand film, over two hours long, highlighting the context of blood diamonds rather smartly. What I found missing in the film – as it was definitely downplayed – was the role of the conniving diamond industry executives who had allowed (and still allows) this to happen.

Perhaps there’s a reason for this. According to a recent Fortune magazine (cover story) on blood diamonds, titled ‘Diamonds Aren’t Forever’, Vivienne Walt in writes, “Diamond producers and dealers did not need Hollywood to reach that conclusion. As war raged in the past decade, they realized that so-called blood diamonds carried a risk to their business that was far out of proportion to the tiny number of stones. Even during the bloodiest years no more than 15 percent of the world’s diamonds were controlled by rebels in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

15 percent still amounts to a large sum in the US$60 billion a year business. So, how effective will ‘Blood Diamond’ be in stirring up a global controversy, persuading consumers to morally evaluate their diamond purchases, bringing about social change, and offering hope to those millions of the poor in Africa who are suffering because of this bloody trade? No-one knows. The real question is, does anyone care? After all, This Is Africa (TIA)… and God left this continent long ago.

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