Conflict diamonds on the big screen

It is not often that an international non-profit organization sends letters to contributors urging them to watch the latest Hollywood block-buster. That’s exactly what Amnesty International has done with Blood Diamond.

It’s not the first time the subject of conflict diamonds has featured in a  major production. That honor goes to a James Bond movie of all things. As played by Pierce Brosnan, 007, not exactly known for insisting on fair-trade coffee and dolphin-safe tuna, makes a passing reference to  the problem of conflict diamonds in Die Another Day, where the villain is guilty of “laundering” gems from war zones through a bogus mine in New Zealand. But any deeper political and economic examination of the problem is cast aside as 007 gets busy shooting up things.

So it falls to Leonardo Di Capprio to make the point four years later, playing the mercenary Danny Archer smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone in order to help a  major diamond producer (based in Belgium, just enough seperation from reality that De Beers will not take offense) work around the official embargo against trading with the war-stricken country. The movie attempts to make the case on two levels. First there is the ultra-realistic violence reminiscent of Blackhawk Down, showing the effects civil war, fueled by diamond profits, on the lives of ordinary citizens. In case the audience misses that, there is a very blunt monologue by Archer, filmed in sepia tones and delivered in practiced South-African accent. It purports to explain how demand for diamonds is created as a cultural myth on the one hand, while scarcity is created on the supply side by withholding production from the market. Given the flow of cash involved, Archer says, raising questions about the source is  not wise: the last thing buyers need before forking over three months salary is even the hint of third-world destruction in the making of their shiny bling-blings.

And for that reason, the sanctimonious  suggestion at the end that buyers question the source of diamonds before purchasing, rings hollow. Given the incentives at stake, is it in the interest of the sellers to know– let alone disclose– the true origins of their wares?   (The three-letter acronym often repeated in the movie, “TIA” or this-is-Africa might as well be read as this-is-America.)


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