Should Ethical Jewelers Support The Botswana Diamond Boycott?


Editorial by Marc Choyt

Survival International has called for a boycott of Botswana diamonds and they have targeted De Beers stores. Should the ethical jeweler heed this call and support this boycott, and to what extent is De Beers responsible for the human rights abuses of Bushmen in Botswana?

For the past few years, Botswana diamonds have been viewed from those in the diamond sector as a shining example of jewelry helping the developing world. While in most countries, diamond are exported to cutting centers in India, Israel and Antwerp, many diamonds mined in Botswana, particularly by De Beers, are also polished there. This provides a massive economic boost through downstream economy in the form of jobs and infrastructure. DeBeers’ mines are multiparty certified for environmental responsibility.

Thus, the conventional image among those in the jewelry sector who care about ethical diamond sourcing is: Botswana = beneficiation, a term which describes utilizing mining resources to support local economic development in the context of mining. In fact, just over a year ago, I tried to try to sell Botswana diamonds in my store, which is when I learned that Botswana diamonds are mainly sold through Motiganz. I lamented that I couldn’t purchase them in an editorial. Yet I still supported the initiative, interviewing Jeff Corey on how he has used Botswana diamonds to counter the public’s antipathy toward blood diamonds in his chain of New England stores.

Much of the objection in Botswana has been focused around the actions of Graff Diamonds and De Beers, which sold the concession located on the Bushman’s land to Gem Diamonds 8 years ago.

Given how difficult it is to achieve a beneficial downstream economy, and the fact that Botswana is held up as a model for best practices, one can understand why the Botswana government has called Survival International’s Campaign propaganda.

The mainstream jewelry sector is particularly sensitive to outsider NGOs attacking their sourcing in cases such as this. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

Yet if you look at the situation from the Bushmen’s perspective (I Want To Go Home) which is stated on their website, http://www.iwant2gohome.org/ and also, the documentation provided by Survival International, there’s plenty of reason to be outraged.

Getting To The Root Cause.

What is going on in Botswana is part of a long and continual process of the jewelry and other sectors of industry destroying indigenous culture. For example, all the lands in Africa were once commons, owned by tribes. In the 1800s, the Afrikaners in South African would offer settlers huge parcels of land as if the tribal people did not exist. De Beers was the name of a farm where diamonds were found.

The same issue of disenfranchisement of indigenous people is happening all over the world. This publication has extensively documented the issues in Greenland, where the melting ice sheets reveal vast mineral wealth. Until valuable ruby deposits were documented, Inuit small scale miners were able to gather and sell rubies as part of their rights as guaranteed under Article 32 of their Constitution. Now, they cannot sell or gather those rubies.

Today, in developed countries, such as Canada, Indigenous people have lawyers and are educated enough to protect themselves. Few First Nation people would claim that the system is perfect. But the disenfranchisement of indigenous people by mining companies would never be tolerated in countries such as Canada, where courts have power over government policy. Indigenous people are offered, through an Impact Benefit Agreement, compensation for mining and loss of tribal lands. There is some degree of openness and transparency. In Botswana, the courts have backed the Bushmen; but according to Survival, the government is not obeying the courts.

We can trace this conflict to deeply held beliefs which are difficult to reconcile. Government and states create boundaries in order to buy and sell land. Traditional cultures often hold land in a commons. The break up of these commons is necessary in order to exploit resources on the land. This is a very old story, recorded on the earth beneath the seat where I pen these words.

Recently, a dear friend of mine, Larry Littlebird, who directs the Indigenous Learning Center south of where I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, pointed out an old survey marker from the US government dated 1856. Larry is from Kewa and Leguna Pueblos. He said that before the land was carved up, his people used to keep their horses in the Valle Caldera (Northern New Mexico) during the summers, and bring them out to what is now the plains of Kansas during the winter. The land was a giant commons. But once the land was surveyed, it was divided up and sold off. Then came the cattle, Indian schools and the attack on a way of life.

Indigenous world view understands the land as essential to their identity. The land is their body. Corporations such as De Beers and the mining department of governments see land as commodity, an opportunity only to make money and drive their profits.

The problem with the current corporate view is its shortsightedness based on a kind of linearity. The drive to profit is too paramount. Continuing to treat the Earth and the people who reside close to the soil as merely commodity in a resource to cash to trash paradigm is a fool’s game. We’re in the middle of a mass extinction, losing about 30,000 species a year. As Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest, what’s at stake is the “entire sacred cellular basis of existence.”

This issue in Botswana may seem far away from us, but from a macro point of view, these high profile campaigns of Survival International, from their perspective, is probably about all our survival. We need to protect what little natural capital we have left for future generations, when perhaps the economic model is based upon profit benefiting entire life giving systems. Right now our policies are not working for the benefit of the whole. Even developed countries, as Kristoff of the New York Times writes, are turning into Banana Republics where massive wealth is controlled by only a few.

Sure, humanity will survive, but in what condition? I lived in Haiti for two years, working around the slums of Port au Prince. I’ve been to Calcutta and seen how little people need to live. Human beings are as adaptable as cockroaches. What we’re sacrificing in the millions of small decisions every day is the quality of life that future generations will have.

The tribal people existing at the fringe edge of globalization are the last holdouts to a world view which humanity ignores at its own peril.

The Complexity of Gray

Three million Africans were killed during wars funded by the diamond trade and not one individual in companies that took part in this atrocity has ever been held responsible for these deaths. In accounts I’ve read, De Beers was one of many companies that had their part.

Even now, using dirty gold and conflict materials and even blood diamonds from Zimbabwe is so normal that many people within the sector do not take notice. It is not that most jewelers do not care. Rather, their main focus is not international supply chain issues, but their bottom line. The perfect example is the Responsible Jewelry Council, the jewelry sector’s front for ethical sourcing which touts ethics while in fact leading by making responsibility equal to exploitation.

In context to mining, the reasoning often used by large scale mining companies is that they are merely working within the laws of the government and that they are not responsible for the politics. This very argument was used in Jewelers of American’s protest of the Finance Bill passed earlier this fall by the US Congress which prohibited conflict minerals. It is also typified by True North Gem’s initial position in Greenland when I interviewed their CEO regarding Greenland rubies. To me, it is a specious argument because it is always money and power which drives political allocation of resources.

The government of Botswana owns part of De Beers. Botswana is one of the most democratically functional of all African nations. But to what degree should De Beers be a target for the actions of the Botswana government in regard to the Bushmen? One can see why De Beers is targeted, given their reputation among progressive people world wide who know just a little about their history.

Anglo American also owns a significant part of De Beers. AngloAmerican is responsible for attempting to mine Bristol Bay, a pristine watershed in Alaska, the protection of which has been a major focus of Earthworks Action. Anglo American is a massive mining company which has drawn the ire of many NGOs over the years.

De Beers prides itself on its ethics and how it has improved it’s CSR over the past ten years. Their mines are among the most responsibly run in the world. According to some people I’ve spoken to, countries in Africa want De Beers to enter because they function with high standards.

During the recent slow down, a number of diamond mines in Botswana were shut down. Diamonds are found in dozens of countries. Which is more important: another diamond mine which will make a few people wealthy or the survival an ancient culture with 100,000 people?

For me, the answer is clear enough. Even if I could get one, the Botswana Diamond is no longer appealing. The treatment of the Bushmen by the government of Botswana, extensively documented by Survival International, is abhorrent. Yet with their much touted ethical platform, De Beers would gain a lot of clout if they strongly publicly advocating for the rights of the Bushmen. But that’s unlikely. It would put them at odds with their governmental partners in Botswana.

De Beers will always be an easy target for any NGO. But one cannot deny that their beneficiation in Botswana is a great model. The trouble with a boycott is that it has the potential to harm the beneficial elements of the diamond trade in Botswana. Like many issues in the jewelry sector, we live in shades of gray.

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