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Diamonds or death?; HOW A BACKLASH AGAINST THE GEMS TRADE COULD THREATEN AFRICA'S BATTLE TO BEAT POVERTY AND CATASTROPHIC AIDS.

THE six uncut diamonds cupped in the tiny woman's hands are worth pounds 3m.

They were dug from a hole in the ground - the richest hole in the world - in southern Africa.

Each month Jwaneng Mine in Botswana produces between pounds 60-pounds 75 million in gems and contributes massively to the tiny country's economy

Yet next door, in the mining camp's immaculate hospital, a medic clasps a similar handful of pills, medicine that has arrived too late to save his dying patients.

Diamonds have made Botswana one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

But the stones which give the country its sparkle have a darker, bloodier side. One which has the diamond industry facing the worst crisis in its history.

Beyond Botswana's boundaries greed, murder, war and mass atrocities have, in many people's minds, turned Africa into a basket case.

In Angola, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, diamonds have funded the ambitions of war lords.

These are the "blood stones', the ones the industry prefers to call "conflict diamonds".

According to De Beers, the greatest diamond corporation in the world, such gems "originate from areas in Africa controlled by forces fighting the legitimate, internationally recognised government of the relevant country".

Look no further than Sierra Leone. Like Botswana, it is a potentially wealthy nation but one where rebels over-ran the diamond fields to purchase the arms with which to do their killing.

Look no further than those awful scenes of mothers and babies with hands amputated by machetes.

THEN contrast them with the radiant image of a beautiful woman, fingers extended, diamond-adorned.

It is precisely that contrast which De Beers and its partners fear the most.

Their diamonds are one of the most concentrated forms of wealth known to man, a symbol of purity, mystique and of everlasting love.

For 70 years De Beers has relied on one slogan: "A diamond is forever", but now there is the fear that this luxury trade will go the way of another.

As one leading dealer told me: "There is a real danger that we will become the new fur trade. If the public begin to see us like that it will lead to a consumer mass boycott. A disaster."

And, for a country as heavily dependent on the industry as Botswana, it will mean economic devastation.

Led by Britain, the United Nations this month banned the sale of "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone.

The resolution, framed by Foreign Office minister Peter Hain, could pave the way for similar embargoes in other African war zones.

Last week Britain lobbied its colleagues at the G8 Summit to give their full backing to a concerted plan of action. Tony Blair discussed plans with the Russian government for an international conference on diamond certification.

And De Beers, which controls 60 per cent of the world's uncut diamonds, has announced that any diamond manufacturer discovered buying blood stones will no longer be able to purchase legitimate gems from them.

But policing the annual flow of 863,000,000 polished stones each year is well nigh impossible.

De Beers may be able to issue certificates for every one of its "clean" stones, but greedy men will not be deterred.

There are many of them in the cutting centres of Antwerp, Tel Aviv and in India.

There are smuggling rings - Russians, Lebanese, Africans and Israelis - ever ready to take the money and run the risk. And, as yet, there is no technology available for marking individual diamonds in line with Britain's wish for a system tracing them from "mine to finger".

I sit in the headquarters of Debswana, the part-government, part-De Beers-owned company responsible for Botswana's diamond mining. Its boss, Oxford-educated Louis Nchindo, is fuming.

"I am very concerned. Take the United States. The average guy in Colorado doesn't know where Virginia is, let alone Africa," he says.

" If this 'blood diamond' publicity grows, he'll just stop buying diamonds. He won't bother to differentiate between one from properly run, politically stable Botswana and one from Sierra Leone.

"Even more worrying is that Blair, Robin Cook and Hain think they are very clever with their initiative. It makes their so-called ethical foreign policy look good for once. But it's just spin - and it's stupid.

"There are many wars in Africa in places where there are no diamonds. And it is war, not diamonds, which should be under attack.

"Where is the initiative against arms dealers, especially those in Europe?

"A couple of months ago Britain supplied spare war plane parts to President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Is money that important to Britain?

"If you can smuggle cocaine and heroin, you haven't a hope with diamonds. But you can't hide military tanks and AK47s. And that's where countries like Britain should be concentrating.

"If this campaign continues, rich people will stop buying diamonds. They'll be purchasing Rolex watches instead and you will be responsible only for damaging the poor people."

In Botswana diamonds constitute 33 per cent of the GDP, account for 75 per cent of its government's earnings and 65 per cent of its foreign exchange.

When it was granted independence from Britain in 1966 it was one of the world's poorest nations.

There were only eight kilometres of asphalt roads, two private schools and just 10,000 people in formal employment.

But it had a democratic, well-led government. And one year later, diamonds were discovered.

Since then its one and a quarter million population can pride itself on continued peace. Its university has 10,000 graduates a year; employment has risen to 225,000. There are 25 senior schools, more than 100 others. Education and health is free. Power is subsidised.

But there is a starker side.

Aids in sub-Saharan Africa is catastrophic. More than a third of the adult population is HIV positive. Two thirds of all 15-year-old boys have the disease. By 2003 the population will begin to fall.

Life expectancy is now 39 in Botswana instead of 71, as it would be without the disease. By 2010 it will be 29. It is the highest rate in the world.

Yet only 40 people have publicly admitted having HIV Aids. Such is the taboo, cemeteries fill ... while sons, daughters, mothers and fathers pretend nothing is wrong.

The nation's Finance Minister tells me he thinks there's light at the end of the tunnel. But that light can only come from diamonds.

Always diamonds. Three months ago the government announced they would have a Minister to deal with Aids.

The ostrich-like approach to the disease in a country where even sex is a taboo subject is finally on the way out.

Ironically the change of heart comes just as the money required to fight back may evaporate if diamonds lose their sparkle.

In a nearby building, 215 employees of the Botswana Diamond Valuing Company sit crouched over piles of gems. Over a year they will sort nearly 20m carats - two TONNES of diamonds - grading them into 14,000 categories.

A trolley with 27 small boxes awaits shipment by air to De Beers in London. This monthly consignment is worth at least pounds 65 million and barely comes up to my chest.

We have to place our hands on two metal plates as we leave. They test temperature and heart rate. A two-way mirror surveys us. Security cameras monitor every movement within this, the richest building in the country.

And then we leave the capital to journey to the centre of the earth.

JWANENG is a 90-minute drive from the capital over thornveldt bush and under arid skies. It lies on the edge of the vast Kalahari desert.

It is a hole measuring two kilometres by one kilometre. It is now 250 metres deep, and by the time they need to resort to shafts this open-cast chasm will be 600 metres in depth.

But that will not be for another 30 years at least, such is the wealth of this place in the middle of nowhere.

It is 24-hours-a-day operation, blasting into the kimberlite which hides the 250 million-year-old diamonds.

Mechanical diggers rake the shattered rock while 20 gigantic 180-tonne trucks take the ore to the crushers. Field conveyor belts transport the stuff to electronic sorters ... nine million tonnes of rock pulverised to yield just two tonnes of gems.

Sometimes, perhaps once a month, one of the 2,000 workers here will find a diamond. They are given half its value. Few ever try to smuggle them out. The security is too intense.

Razor wire, cameras, X-ray detectors and, finally, men and women guards with rubber gloves, Vaseline and little tin potties for those who think that swallowing a diamond may secure wealth by stealth.

A company town has sprung up alongside. The air-conditioned homes are subsidised, the workers relatively well paid.

The hospital is pristine clean. But it is a sad place. The matron says that seven out of ten adult patients are HIV positive. There are babies born with it.

Even here, despite the diamonds, they cannot yet afford the anti-retroviral drugs which will stave off death.

The pharmacist pours some of the capsules into his cupped hands. They remind me of the tiny woman holding six diamonds worth pounds 3 million. Those diamonds would treat more than 1,000 patients for a year.

And I think of the government minister who told me the campaign against blood diamonds is one of good intentions.

"Good intentions, but ones that may lead to undesirable results for a nation like ours."

A nation which climbed from zero to wonderful economic success in three decades. A nation disproving the claim that Africa is indeed a lost continent.

But a nation held in thrall by the good intentions of other governments to prevent the madness of violent men driven by greed.

It is a challenge. One finely balanced between the preservation of innocent lives and of so many deaths.

It is a challenge to world leaders which must be taken firmly in cupped hands.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Antonowicz, Anton
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 26, 2000
Words:1667
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