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Looking for Untainted Diamonds in a Violent World

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Looking for Untainted Diamonds in a Violent World

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Looking for Untainted Diamonds in a Violent World

Looking for Untainted Diamonds in a Violent World

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The new Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond, set in 1990's Sierra Leone, has raised awareness about so-called "conflict diamonds" — diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance insurgent warfare. Michele Norris talks with Alex Yearsley, with Global Witness, about what consumers can do to avoid buying these gems.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And around the country, commercial radio stations are airing ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATION AD)

RONNIE MERVIS: This is Ronnie Mervis. With the release of Leonardo DiCaprio's movie about diamond smuggling, many people are concerned about so-called blood diamonds. I'd like to reassure them about our diamonds at Mervis.

NORRIS: The movie "Blood Diamond" has focused a spotlight on the dark side of the international diamond trade. The film features grisly depictions of violence surrounding the diamond industry in Sierra Leone, and that has many diamond sellers engaged in a PR campaign with ads like the one we just heard.

Human rights groups have sprung into action as well. They hope the film will prompt consumers to think about where their diamonds come from and avoid stones that are tainted by war or bloodshed. Alex Yearsley is a blood diamond campaigner for Global Witness, that's a nonprofit investigative human rights organization. He describes what consumers can look for at the jewelry store.

ALEX YEARSLEY: On the sales invoice, they will have a written statement that says these diamonds haven't been purchased in contravention of piracy and resolution or that we promise they are not blood diamonds. And it's like, well, fantastic, great. But what does that mean? And it means nothing. And as they had an independent auditor going through all of those purchase and sales invoices to verify them back to the companies they bought them from. And then, the company that they bought them from, they got to have done exactly the same thing, so you need a complete chain of security.

NORRIS: So if you're listening right now and you want to buy that diamond for someone special in your life, what do you do?

YEARSLEY: It's a tough call. What we would say is if you genuinely want to buy that diamond, then you are going to have to shop around. There are certain companies and certain retailers that I think have put more effort into it. They have single suppliers that buy from, you know, say one particular country. But that also leads to particular problems down the line. Some people will say, well, buy only Canadian diamonds because we can guarantee you they're conflict free. And we don't believe that is the answer. We believe that Africa has to prosper from its natural resources.

What we would like to see is those diamonds being manufactured and polished in those countries, rather than the system at the moment, where diamonds are mixed together and they try to maximize the benefit. Fool the middleman in the industry and fool the retailer.

NORRIS: The diamond industry, as you know, has launched an extensive public relations campaign to say that they are compliant with this process, that folks like you are exaggerating this issue.

YEARSLEY: I would like to show them a documentary that would be showing off some undercover footage that was taken in New York several weeks ago, where a Sierra Leone journalist just pretending to be from the Congo, comes around with a rough diamond valued at $50,000. He goes into 10 rough diamond buyers on 47th Street. Nine out of ten of those guys offer to buy the diamond, after he's publicly told them he has no paperwork, he has no certification, he didn't import it legally. They put money on the table, and they wanted to buy it. And they were happily explaining that they buy diamonds all the time from Ivory Coast, from Sierra Leone, from Congo, from Angola.

And the diamond industry is trying to tell us this problem is solved. They are not effectively policing themselves.

NORRIS: Now, you want consumers to walk into the store and ask these questions. Is there evidence that that's happening?

YEARSLEY: Ah, yes. There's a number of, you know, outlets we're getting information back, speaking to retailers, they say it is increasing. People are coming in. They're asking questions, especially in light of the film. I think one thing interestingly that happened in when we were in L.A. for the premiere of the film, women actually started taking off their diamond jewelry in the restrooms afterwards. And we don't want too negatively impact the diamond industry. But they've got to start matching rhetoric with action. And consumers are becoming educated.

NORRIS: Alex, it's been so good to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

YEARSLEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: Alex Yearsley is a blood diamond campaigner for Global Witness. He was speaking to us about how consumers can ensure that they are not fueling war or other conflicts when making a diamond purchase.

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Industry Braces for Blowback from 'Blood Diamond'

Industry Braces for Blowback from 'Blood Diamond'

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Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio star as a man forced to work mining diamonds and a former mercenary, respectively, in the upcoming film Blood Diamond. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures

Blood Diamond is a Hollywood thriller, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, about the illegal gem trade. It doesn’t open for another couple of months, but the diamond industry has already launched a sophisticated campaign that seems designed to blunt any damage the movie might cause to sales this holiday season.

Set in 1999 in Sierra Leone, the movie presents a brutal portrait of the diamond business. Characters include a smuggler, a corrupt diamond syndicate and rebels who cut off the limbs of villagers to scare others into working in the mines.

But before audiences see any amputees this Christmas, the diamond industry wants people to know what's been done to halt the so-called blood diamond trade.

Defensive Ad Blitz

Last month, the World Diamond Council — a trade group — took out full-page ads in 10 newspapers. They touted the Kimberley Process, a three-year-old, U.N.-backed certification system designed to keep blood diamonds off the market.

"We want people who see the movie to understand it is the past," says Cecilia Gardner, an attorney with the World Diamond Council. "Lots has happened since that time."

The Diamond Council's campaign follows the mantra of Allan Mayer, a leading crisis-management specialist in Los Angeles.

"You really need to tell your story first," Mayer says. "If you don't tell your own story, someone else is going to tell it for you — and chances are, you're not going to like the way it comes out."

The council hired Mayer a year ago. He didn't want to speak directly about this campaign, but talked generally about how to deal with movies that could cast an industry in a bad light. First: Get out in front of the release so you frame the issue.

"One of the things about big movies is they don't come out of the blue," he says. "You see them coming a long way off. So, what you want to do in a situation like that is start planning your response a year, 18 months before the movie comes out. Start talking about the issues that matter to you in a context that has nothing to do with the movie."

Provoking Shoppers to Ask Questions

The diamond council tried to persuade the movie's director, Edward Zwick, to add a disclaimer, citing the Kimberley Process and pointing out that the civil war in Sierra Leone was long over.

Zwick is a respected figure in Hollywood. His past credits include Glory and Traffic. He never considered making a change.

"My reaction is, I try not to take notes from the studio," Zwick says. "And I really didn't think it was proper to take them from an industry lobby."

Zwick acknowledges the flow of blood diamonds has slowed, but human rights groups say that's due more to the end of wars in Sierra Leone and Angola than to the certification process. And Zwick says more needs to be done.

"In 1999, there were all sorts of estimates, varying from 15 percent to 5 percent, that diamonds reaching the world market had come from conflict zones," Zwick says. "That number has been significantly reduced, but it is a system that is yet imperfect."

Indeed, a recent U.N. report says that each year, at least $9 million in diamonds mined by rebels in Ivory Coast are smuggled onto the market. Zwick says he wants his film to provoke shoppers to ask questions.

"What I wanted to create in their minds is consciousness," he says. "A purchase of a diamond just has to be an informed purchase. I think after seeing this movie, people will feel it incumbent upon themselves to ask for a warranty, so as to guarantee the diamond they’re buying is not from a conflict zone."

How Long Will Awareness Last?

If the questions start coming, Ronnie Mervis is ready. Mervis owns several stores in the Washington, D.C., area. He's planning seminars for his staff and has written an article on the issue for a local lifestyle magazine. He says he's not worried about business.

"The movie — no matter how good it is, no matter how big a blockbuster it is — has its day and then it passes on," Mervis says.

Alex Yearsley works for Global Witness, a human rights group. He's on the other side of the issue. But on the question of sales, he agrees with Mervis.

"At the height of the blood diamond issue, when it was on the front pages — pictures of Sierra Leonean children having had their arms cut off — there was no discernable downsizing in diamond sales," Yearsley says.

Blood Diamond opens Dec. 15.

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