I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.Today we tell about the trade in diamonds, a worldwide business worth billions of dollars.
(MUSIC: "Diamonds Are Forever")
The use of valuable stones like diamonds goes back thousands of years. Rulers of many ancient cultures used gemstones to show wealth and importance. Diamonds still represent power and fame. Rich and famous people around the world wear diamonds. And, most women in the United States receive a diamond ring when they agree to a marriage proposal.
Diamonds are mined from the Earth. They are cut, made to shine and then sold at high prices. The nation of South Africa is famous for its supply of diamonds. For generations, men have gone deep down into the Earth to bring out the rough stones. It is very difficult and dangerous work. But recently, technology has helped.
Diamonds were formed millions of years ago from carbon under extreme heat and pressure more than one hundred kilometers below the Earth's surface. They are found in volcanic "pipes" called kimberlite. The name comes from Kimberley, the place in South Africa were diamonds were found in the nineteenth century.
The DeBeers company bought the Kimberley mine and soon became the biggest mining company in South Africa. DeBeers employed thousands of workers there. In the late twentieth century, it improved working conditions and offered miners a share of the company's profits.
All over the world, valuable stones are mined from deep in the ground, from areas near rivers or coasts and in open gravel pits. Botswana is now the largest diamond producer in Africa. The stones are also mined in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia and Sierra Leone. Other major diamond-producing nations include Australia, Canada and Russia.
DeBeers still controls half of the world's diamond production. Most of their rough stones are sent to the company's headquarters in London to be sold to a few dealers. But independent buyers are also part of the process.
One million people work in the diamond industry in India. Shrenuj and Company is one of the main diamond factories in the city of Mumbai. Workers cut and shine, or polish, gemstones there.
Most of the world's diamonds, mostly small stones, are polished in India. The diamonds are examined and sorted by color. The most valued color has really no color. Experts make the rough diamonds appear larger with the help of computers, so they can see how best to cut them.
Diamonds are the hardest natural material. Only a diamond can cut another diamond. So diamond cutters use diamond dust on a device called a polisher's wheel. It is difficult work. One wrong move and a stone can break. Sanjay Kambne has been performing this work for years. He says he has to be very careful while working with the stones.
The history of valuable gems in India goes back many centuries. Sanjay Kothari heads India's Gem and Jewelry Export Promotion Council. He says India has valued diamonds, jewelry and gold since the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Gems became big business in India in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Mr. Kothari says diamond exports from India last year were worth twenty billion dollars.
Halfway across the world, Antwerp, Belgium is the world's largest diamond trading center. Philip Claes is secretary-general of the Antwerp World Diamond Center.
PHILIP CLAES: "Eighty percent of all the rough diamonds are traded in Antwerp and fifty percent of all polished diamonds worldwide are traded in Antwerp. In figures, it means that we have a turnover here in Antwerp of more than forty billion dollars each year."
Antwerp has more than one thousand eight hundred diamond companies. That is why George Read comes to the city. He is a senior vice present with Shoregold, a diamond mining company in Canada. He goes to Antwerp to have his diamonds revalued.
Diamonds are weighed and valued in carats. One carat equals two hundred milligrams. In addition to carat weight and color, a gemstone's value is based on its clearness and cut -- the shape of the polished stone.
Antwerp once had about twenty-five thousand people working as diamond cutters and polishers. Now only a few hundred remain. Belgian cutters lost their jobs to workers in India because they are paid less.
The international trade in diamonds is worth an estimated eighty billion dollars a year. This has helped some countries develop economically. It has provided jobs for workers in some of the world's poorest countries. However, the diamond trade has also been used to support wars, frighten civilians and keep dictators in power.
The diamond mines in South Africa are clean. Machines are used to help the workers. But this is not true in other parts of Africa. More than one million people search for diamonds in Africa. They dig in pits and near rivers by hand. They earn less than one dollar a day.
In recent years, armed militias and rebels in some countries used diamonds to pay for civil wars. Thousands of civilians were killed and injured in conflicts in places like Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. So these gems are called "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds."
Global Witness was one of the first non-governmental organizations to call attention to the issue. Annie Dunnebacke says the group's goal was to show the tragedy of conflict diamonds. She says Sierra Leone was one of the worst cases. Hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the country's civil war in the nineteen nineties. Rebels cut off the arms and legs of innocent people and forced children to fight. The Revolutionary United Front controlled the eastern part of Sierra Leone. This is where the diamond fields are.
The diamonds were an economic reason for the war to continue. Efforts to report the link between the war and the diamonds were successful.
Two years ago, the movie "Blood Diamond" helped bring more attention to the situation. The movie takes place during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Leonardo di Caprio plays a man who sells arms to the rebels in exchange for diamonds. He is involved in a chase for a rare and valuable pink diamond. But in the end, he gives up the diamond, fights off the rebels and helps others learn about the illegal trade.
Global Witness was an adviser on the film. Annie Dunnebacke says it influenced public opinion.
ANNIE DUNNEBACKE: "I think that bringing the message in sort of Hollywood terms to a much wider audience than possibly our reports get to -- it does have value."
International pressure made the diamond industry take action in an effort to prevent the trade in blood diamonds. In two thousand three, the Kimberley Process was established. It requires member governments to prove that exports and imports do not include blood diamonds.
Tom Tweedy is a spokesman for DeBeers, the world's largest producer of rough diamonds. He says the Kimberley Process is a good step forward.
TOM TWEEDY: "We have a system and however imperfect it may be it is probably the only comprehensive system of its type in the world."
Philip Claes of the World Diamond Center says conflict diamonds represented four to fifteen percent of rough diamonds traded worldwide before the Kimberley Process.
Today, he says conflict diamonds represent only two-tenths of one percent of rough diamonds traded worldwide. However, Annie Dunnebacke says some diamonds are being moved illegally between African countries.
Experts say diamonds are not the only valuable gems that are linked to trouble in the world. For example, more than ninety percent of the world's rubies come from Burma. The military government controls the sale of the country's gems. This trade helps keep the government in power.
Human rights activists are working to increase restrictions against Burmese rubies. Activists are hoping that people will start to ask more questions about the jewelry they buy.
This program was written by Sonja Pace and adapted by Shelley Gollust. Our producer was Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. You can download audio and read scripts on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.