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US Fund Seeks to Train African Miners to Process Their Diamonds


An American entrepreneur is establishing an organization to raise money for African communities that rely on diamond mining for their livelihoods. The entrepreneur, Russell Simmons, says he is starting the Diamond Empowerment Fund to teach Africans how to do more than mine diamonds. It wants to teach them to cut and polish them as well, thereby giving the communities a chance to retain more money from their production. VOA's Amanda Cassandra reports.

The goal of the Diamond Empowerment Fund is to support educational and vocational training for black Africans. By teaching the skills needed to cut and polish diamonds, the fund hopes that many of the millions of dollars generated by diamonds will stay in Africa.

Russell Simmons, a former music record mogul who runs his own jewelry line, says he is starting the fund to contribute to black African empowerment. He plans to use the success of Botswana's diamond mining industry, which includes a cutting and polishing factory, as a model for the rest of the continent.

"Diamonds empower Africans. I want every place to be like Botswana. It will take some work. Not every country is going to retain 85 percent of the proceeds from what comes out of the ground in their country, especially if other people invest to bring it out of the ground. But I hope that becomes a reality, not only for the diamond industry, but all other extractive industries including oil, uranium and gold. I am very inspired by what I saw and that's the message I wanted to bring back," he said.

Currently, the majority of the world's precious gems are processed outside Africa, in countries such as Belgium and Israel.

Simmons says funding for the Diamond Empowerment Fund will come from a portion of the sales generated from the Simmons Jewelry Line, which he co-founded with his wife, Kimora.

Botswana's diamond wealth has helped it create one of the most stable and successful economies in Africa. The country uses its money from diamonds to improve education and community facilities. With an estimated 37 percent of the population afflicted with AIDS, much of the money is also given to AIDS treatment.

The government of Botswana, in partnership with the De Beers diamond company, operates the diamond mining facilities in the country. Debswana, as the partnership is called, is owned in equal share by the Botswana government and De Beers. It is the largest diamond mining company in the world, contributing 40 percent of the world's supply of rough diamonds.

The managing director of Debswana, Blackie Marole, says the company is committed to using diamond profits to enrich the country.

"Debswana is very proud that not only does it provide the government of Botswana with 50 percent of its revenue, which have been used to a lot of things including enabling the government to have an effective AIDS management program in the form of campaigning against the spread of AIDS, putting in place various prevention methods to protect its people, and to provide direct AIDS treatment in the form of ARVs [anti-retroviral drugs]," he said.

The diamond industry is in the spotlight as a result of heightened public awareness of human rights atrocities stemming from the so-called "conflict diamond" trade, that is, diamonds sold to fund armed conflict and civil war in Africa. Profits from conflict diamonds have been used by warlords and rebels to buy arms

But under a voluntary regulatory system called the "Kimberly Process," the trade in conflict diamonds has been drastically reduced. First instituted in 2003, the "Kimberly Process" ensures that rough diamonds mined in conflict-free zones are certified with a non-forgable certificate authenticating their origin. Buyers can thus be sure that their money will not go to fund more fighting in Africa.

Chief Executive Officer of Debswana Sheila Khama says the positive impact of African diamonds is underreported.

"Both Blackie and I would not be here were it not for the diamond industry. When I started school as a young girl of six, I went to school under a great big acacia tree because the entire country did not have classrooms. A lot of good has happened in Botswana and in Africa as a result of diamonds. Admittedly, some countries haven't done as well as Botswana but the truth of the matter is I'm a living embodiment of that goodness," he said.

Simmons says one result of the "Kimberly Process," is that few conflict diamonds are in the global diamond supply. Now, he believes, people can buy diamonds knowing they might benefit communities in Africa.