The West African diamond industry was thrust into the limelight this year with the Hollywood movie "Blood Diamond." The film depicts atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war. Some analysts say the West African diamond sector has come a long way since that time. Other activists say, for those living and working in diamond-mining areas, life has not improved much. Kari Barber reports from Dakar.
In the 1990s illicit diamond trade was believed to have fueled civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and the countries in ruin. Rebels and governments were accused of selling diamonds to buy arms.
In 2002, countries and non-governmental organizations involved in the diamond trade implemented what is called the Kimberley Process. It is designed to certify the origin of diamonds and prevent diamond money from financing wars.
Ian Smillie with Partnership Africa Canada, says - even with monitoring and regulations - smuggling is difficult to prevent. Smillie says most borders in Africa are porous and, even at official checkpoints like airports, people are not searched for diamonds.
"They are one of the most concentrated forms of wealth on Earth and they are very easy to hide," he said. "So if people want to steal a diamond or if they have some reason for smuggling them, they will. This is never going to stop. The Kimberley Process can catch 90 or 95 percent of it, but it is not going to catch everything."
Smillie says the protocol has been successful in drawing attention to the problem of conflict diamonds and forcing traders to go through legitimate channels to sell their diamonds.
Six years ago, before the Kimberley Process, Sierra Leone officially exported about a million dollars worth of diamonds. In 2005 diamond exports totaled $145 million.
Liberia is still waiting to reopen its diamond sector. The United Nations voted to maintain the sanctions, this month.
Smillie says, for the Kimberley Process to work, it is best to have Liberia out of the picture for now. He says sanctions may cause some small-time smuggling, but it is better than the country becoming a center for illicit diamonds, as in the past. During the 1990s, diamond exploitation and trade in regional conflict diamonds propped up the Charles Taylor war-time administration.
Smillie says the best way to weaken the market for illegal diamonds is to make the legal route more attractive.
"The best way to regulate it is not to police it," he said. "It is to make sure people get the very best prices in the country where the diamonds are mined. If you can move the buyers, bring some of those Antwerp buyers and others to Sierra Leone to buy the diamonds and regulate that. Make sure there are fair prices, make sure people know what the diamonds are worth and make sure that you manage the banking arrangements. Then you have a better chance of keeping a grip on the overall industry."
Abu Brima is coordinator at the Campaign for Just Mining. The Freetown-based group monitors Sierra Leone's mining sector. He says the Kimberley Process has enabled Sierra Leone's government to make improvements in areas such as mining registration.
But Brima says that, although the increased coordination has brought more investment, it has meant little for the average person. He says environmental and labor concerns fall outside the scope of the Kimberley Process.
"So it has not really made any significant difference in the lives of local community people, and the diggers, and the miners themselves and, therefore, the country," he said. "So there is a serious gap in terms of how the diamond sector has benefited anybody."
Brima says the areas around diamond mines are still among the poorest in Sierra Leone. The cost of living is often high and the poverty gap is immense.
Brima says he would like to see the industry put on hold for a few years to allow the sector to reorganize and the government to update its laws.
Corrine Dufka is a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Dakar. She says bad governance, not diamonds, is to blame for the civil wars in West Africa.
"Diamonds, themselves, or any natural resources that are exploited in this way, are not the cause of the wars that we have seen in West Africa," she said. "Speaking particularly about Sierra Leone, prior to the war in Sierra Leone there were several decades of bad governance, corruption, nepotism, inequitable distribution of wealth and absolute poverty; which were the factors that actually led to the war in Sierra Leone, not the diamonds themselves."
Although most of West Africa is falling in line with international regulations, illicit diamonds from the Ivory Coast are still finding their way into shipments, according to the United Nations.
The world body says Ivory Coast is the last country in the world still producing conflict diamonds. Official diamond shipments have been suspended by the government for nearly eight years. as rebels retain control of diamond-mining areas in the north. Despite 2005 U.N. sanctions, Ivory Coast diamonds have been leaking into Mali and Ghana. Ghana, a member of the Kimberley Process, is implementing new inspection procedures to ensure the diamonds coming out of Ghana are from Ghana and not from conflict zones.