Creating human adornments first from ‘found,’ then later mined, earth-stones goes back thousands of years. Today the diamond is still looked upon as one of the most precious gems, not because of its rarity, but because of its intricate beauty and its dazzling brilliance.
But, just as many of us have become aware of the costs to people and our planet in decisions about where our clothing, food and household items come from, many of us also want to make sure that the jewelry we buy and wear is as ethically sourced as is possible.
As we humans forge our way through time, we’ve become increasingly aware of our collective impact on each other and on the earth that is our home. We have awoken, as it were, to the harms we have enacted in our pursuit of human progress. Thankfully, each new generation seems to increase its social and environmental awareness, making positive changes along the way. Creating diamonds in a lab, rather than extracting them from the earth is a fairly recent technology that is considered an ethical alternative to diamond mining. But, what exactly makes a diamond ethical or not? And, how has the traditional diamond mining industry reacted to claims that their techniques are harmful?
With a brief look at how diamonds are formed in the earth and a short explanation of the diamond mining industry, we will be better able to understand why lab-grown diamonds are the future of the diamond jewelry business and is the only true ethical choice when deciding what type of diamond to buy for yourself or your loved ones.
Human rights abuses and environmental degradation have been hallmarks of many a modern industry, with mining being one of the most egregious offenders. The original industrial nations, including the U.S., Canada, Europe and other countries continue to lead the way out of the traditional “at any cost” mindset of human progress, but many secondary industrial countries, despite improvements, still fall short of treating all of their citizens fairly and humanely, nor have they reached the point where respecting the environment takes center stage.
Diamond mining has improved over time with advances in equipment and a better understanding of the geological sciences, but the industry continues to be rife with problems.
Diamonds, like all gemstones, formed in the earth over millions of years. As the earth’s tectonic plates shifted around the globe, the force of their impacts lifted the upper mantles of their unintentional continental targets. The intense heat this created melted and compressed bits of carbon that lay dormant beneath the earth’s crust. Over millions of years this process formed lattice-like areas filled with ore and diamonds, which geologists call the Kimberlite. Some Kimberlite remained hidden in its “primary” locations below the earth’s crust. As the earth’s core continually heaved and relaxed, sections of Kimberlite gradually moved upwards to the earth’s surface, where they were transformed by the erosive forces of wind and rain, eventually carried downstream by highland rivers to “secondary” locations in what are called “Alluvial Plains.” These plains spread out along stream beds, river beds, and shorelines and into oceans, and the diamonds in these locations are mixed with the local sediment. The first diamonds were most likely discovered by our ancestors who found them glittering in stream beds, or while digging into surrounding shoreline, but most diamonds require much more effort to discover and extract.
There are two basic diamond mining industries: formal or industrialized diamond mining; and informal or artisanal mining. Additionally, there are several methods for extracting the diamonds from their primary or secondary locations: pipe mining, done in large open pits with heavy equipment on the earth’s surface; underground mining, carried out deep below the surface; Alluvial mining, which entails collecting diamond filled sediment from the Alluvial plains; and marine mining, which is the extraction of diamonds from the seabed through the use of powerful suction and drilling off ships.
Industrialized mining, as the name implies, is undertaken by large companies with extensive financial investment, including expensive equipment. In pipe mining companies use technology and heavy machinery to locate diamonds, move layers of sand and rock, dig enormous pits, expose and blast diamond filled ore into manageable pieces, and load ore into trucks and relocate for further processing. In underground mining, tunnels are created, blasting ensues, ore is removed and, again, loaded into trucks to move for processing.
Marine mining is also an industrial pursuit, as large ships are needed to either drill into the seabed to break it up into manageable sections, or to send pipes and hoses down that suction up diamond filled sediment.
Some alluvial mining is carried out by large industrial companies with the use of equipment, but not the majority. According to the World Diamond Council:
“Large concentrations of alluvial diamond deposits are mined on an industrial basis. However, most alluvial diamond deposits are spread across huge geographic areas which cannot be easily isolated and therefore are not mined industrially. These deposits are mined informally, in a non regulated way. This is (commonly), known as artisanal or small scale-alluvial diamond digging. Around 10% of the world’s rough diamonds are sourced through industrial alluvial mining and 14% through artisanal or small-scale informal alluvial diamond digging.”
Informal, or artisanal diamond mining, done mostly by hand with picks and shovels to remove earth and sediment and sieves to separate sediment from diamonds, brings our attention to the first in our list of the unethical aspects of diamond mining: the human cost.
The widespread practice of artisanal mining (an estimated 1.3 million people in Africa), is largely non-unionized, unsafe, and unfair. Workers are paid less than a dollar a day; children as young as five are a part of the workforce, not allowing them to attend schools; and all workers toil in deplorable conditions for six to seven days a week. Much of their time is spent digging in stagnant water, water that is a breeding ground for disease and disease-carrying insects, like mosquitos. Healthcare is not generally available and accidents abound. Additionally, communities where artisanal mining is carried out often do not understand the true value of the gemstones they are extracting, resulting in them being exploited and underpaid for their labor. Unfortunately, along with the physical dangers of the artisanal mining process, some workers experience physical abuse, including rape.
Many informal mines were initiated or commandeered by dangerous rebel forces in the 1990s. Illegal sales of diamonds funded devastating civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola. These “blood” or “conflict” diamonds were brought to the attention of the world in the movie “Blood Diamonds,” starring Leo DiCaprio. Unbeknownst to many, however, conflict diamonds continue to be sold today, fueling civil wars in several African countries.
Unethical human practices in artisanal mining are clearly evident, but what about the harm done to the local environments? Precious topsoil is stripped in pursuit of sediment-rich diamonds, fish and wildlife are killed off through pollution and the diversions of streams and small rivers, and entire ecosystems are destroyed. Environmental devastation doesn’t only destroy the environment, but exacts a further toll on people. Any of these issues can negatively affect those living in the region, but taken together they make a devastating impact. Environmental degradation is itself unethical.
PDA, DDI, and Mwadui Community Diamond Partnership
The PDA, or Peace Diamond Alliance, formed in 2002; and the DDI, or Diamond Development Initiative, started in 2006 are non-profit artisanal diamond initiatives. PDA and DDI, along with the Mwadui Community Partnership, created by government, industry, and local NGOs in Tanzania all hope to address issues within the informal, artisanal diamond mining communities. Their goals are to react to community needs, formalize the work forces and deal with environmental concerns. Laudable as these initiatives are, they only scratch the surface of the often unorganized, sometimes illegal mining activities throughout various African countries.
Following a world-wide response to the movie “Blood Diamonds,” the UN and the diamond industry, as well as local governments in Africa began to address the issue of diamonds funding bloody civil wars. A “conflict free” certification, KPCS or Kimberley Process Certification System (the Kimberley Process for short) was devised as a way to ensure that informal mines were not operating in a prevalent and often illegal, conflict-ridden system. The goal of the KPCS is to stop blood diamonds from entering the supply chain. Although a good start, the problem with the certification is it does not address all artisanal mining, as some mines continue to support civil wars and it does not guarantee these diamonds are processed without unethical practices, including violence, rape, physical abuse, child labor, extreme poverty and environmental degradation.
Some jewelers advertise that the diamonds they sell are ethical because they are not conflict diamonds. They might claim that they know the source of the gems they sell, which, for the most part, is impossible. Because of the very complicated and loose system within which many artisanal miners and sellers operate, it becomes almost impossible to know where and how the diamonds are sourced. They could be blood diamonds or diamonds extracted under the unethical conditions
mentioned above. Ian Smillie of the DDI addresses the issue of traceability when he says, “Because most diamonds do not have traceable certificates of origin, it is impossible to say whether they come from artisanal sources or from large mining corporations...Some Canadian diamonds are branded as such and do come with chains of warranty. Most others lose their identity as they work their way through the diamond pipeline.” He continues by explaining that there are “no distinguishing characteristics between diamonds from Kimberlite and artisanal mining.”
Canadian diamond mines, the newest players on the scene, claim to have the most ethical system, and they may well have, but, environmental activist and ethical jeweler Greg Valerio, who concedes that the Canadian model is the best the diamond mining industry currently has to offer states: “We have to be careful with the ethical narrative. No large-scale mine is ethical-it is just best practice and staying within the legal parameters.”
So, as we can see, artisanal mining is not the only type of diamond mining that is tinged with controversy. Large scale mining wrecks environmental havoc around the world. There are diamond mines in Australia, Canada, and Russia, and in several countries throughout the African continent. Mines are often located in pristine, remote areas that require large-scale operations just to get to them and to prepare them to mine. Enormous holes are created over the life of some mines. The Mir mine in Russia is reported to be 3,900 feet (about ⅔ of a mile) across and 1700 feet (about ¼ mile) deep. These mines are abandoned when the diamonds are depleted or the mine is considered too dangerous to operate.
“It’s a huge impact as far as I’m concerned,” says Kevin Krajick, senior editor for science news at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Kevin wrote a book about the discovery of diamonds in the northern reaches of Canada, in which he reminds us that the large holes are not the only problem, but the development to reach such remote areas causes a plethora of environmental concerns.
So, how does one know if the diamonds they wish to purchase are ethically sourced, without conflict, environmental issues, or human rights abuses? The only way to guarantee an ethically sourced diamond is to purchase a machine-made, lab-grown diamond. Go into a store that sells diamond jewelry and ask them to provide you with a certificate that guarantees its source, which shows a chain of warranty throughout the journey that diamond has taken. They won’t be able to because they can’t. Lab-grown diamonds are the true ethical option and the future of the diamond industry.