FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — In 2006, Leonardo DiCaprio starred as Danny Archer, a white South African who helps an American journalist blow the lid off of the blood diamond industry. The movie, aptly named Blood Diamond, was the closest Hollywood was willing to come to an honest documentary depicting the lives of African citizens oppressed under the system of enslaved mining.
Still, diamond and coffee bean harvesting continue to be one of the most willfully ignored human rights issues of the 21st century. This is in large part due to the fact that people in first-world countries benefit directly from the low costs of production that such exploitation entails.
Coffee production, like clothes, computer parts, lawnmowers and the production of a number of other goods sold predominantly in developed nations, depends overwhelmingly on underpaid workers in Asia, South America and Africa. The largest producers of coffee beans are Brazil, India, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam, Indonesia and Colombia. Altogether, these ten countries exported 5.8 billion kilograms of coffee in 2012.
The coffee market is a symptom, a microcosm, of increasing global economic inequality. While workers in these nations only make about three cents of every cup of coffee produced, half the entire market is controlled by five companies: Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, Proctor & Gamble and Tchibo. Meanwhile, underpaid farmers numbering in the millions produce 80 percent of the coffee that enters this market.
The diamonds coming from certain parts of Africa are another cause for concern. During the civil wars in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone, warlords and rebels used prisoners of war to procure and sell diamonds to fuel the ongoing conflicts.
Those wars may have ended, but another diamond siege is currently underway. Côte d’Ivoire is currently experiencing violent conflicts that its rebels are funding with blood diamonds of their own. Both Ivorian and Liberian minerals are being smuggled into more peaceful countries and passed off as legitimate.
Little regulation has been passed in response to the diamond scandal. In 2003, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1459: a bill that attempted to quell the trafficking of blood diamonds through the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme.
However well-intentioned these sanctions are, the list of vice chairs of the KPCS raises more than a few eyebrows when readers realize that one of the nations that was allowed to hold the position within the last five years was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Furthermore, legitimate authorities have been lambasting the KPCS in a very public manner. In 2010 Dr. André A. Jackson, Africa’s highest-ranking diamond official, claimed that the Zimbabwe government “hoards and controls a massive stockpile of both industrial diamonds and more than 40 percent of gem-quality diamonds” despite the attempted regulatory actions of the KPCS.
And he’s not alone in his criticisms. A host of other insiders have come forward saying that the regulations are ineffective.
One particularly potent claim states that countries such as Angola and the DRC continue to get around them by filtering diamonds through tax havens such as Dubai and Switzerland. In 2013, American investigators used Central Intelligence Agency documents to prove that corrupt leaders were using $3 billion in profits from Kimberley Process-certified diamonds to rig elections in their respective countries.
Still, it is emotionally difficult to discredit the possibility that those diamonds may indeed be doing Africans some good. The website diamondfacts.org claims that diamond revenues provide healthcare to approximately five million people and free education to Botswanan children up to the age of 13.
Both the coffee and diamond markets succeed through exploitation by operating under the noses of authority figures and consumers. The Obamas may be great leaders, but it is not implausible that they have unwittingly utilized the services of these industries themselves. Be mindful of high quality products that come cheap. Chances are, the marketers have cheapened the quality of the human labor that went into them.
– Leah Zazofsky