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Witness to the diamond trade

Gemologist Aito Koskinen knows the diamond mines of Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Witness to the diamond trade
Witness to the diamond trade
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By Elina Lappalainen
      It is like a flower, rising up out of the setting in the ring. It gleams and glitters in the light - my first diamond, born out of love and marriage.
      And yet my conscience is pricked at times by uncertainty. I see images from the 2006 movie Blood Diamond, set in the chaos and bloodshed of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
      The picture starring Leonardo Di Caprio tells starkly of the heavy price ordinary Sierra Leoneans paid for the sparkling stones as the war raged.
      Can I be sure that the diamond on my finger is not originally for the wartorn areas of Africa?
      Is it a "conflict diamond" or "blood diamond", the proceeds from which have gone to fund arms deals or wholesale slaughter?
The small grey-haired man standing behind the counter of the jeweller's shop, gemologist Aito Koskinen, springs a surprise: he tells me he has often visited the diamond mines of the Congo! And better still, he soon heading off to Sierra Leone on similar business.
      In actual fact 69-year-old Koskinen is already retired. All the same, he helps out in a Helsinki jeweller's store and assesses gems, for example for insurance purposes, all over the country.
      In the last few years he has expanded his territory to include Africa.
At the end of April, Koskinen returned from his trip to Sierra Leone. We met again, and he told me what the state of play is in the mines there now, seven years after the end of the civil war.
      Koskinen was in Sierra Leone on behalf of a couple of Finnish investors who were looking for a suitable mine from which to buy uncut diamonds. Koskinen's task was to inspect whether the diamonds offered for sale were of good quality and the price was right. Visiting the African diamond producing areas like this is rather uncommon. Generally the mines will sell rough stones directly to the international diamond exchanges.
      Equally, stores and jewellery designers for their part tend to buy the stones cut and polished from wholesalers.
While he was in Sierra Leone, Koskinen's local guides were two Finnish men who have made a business of selling old cars from Finland to Sierra Leone.
      They had set up his local contacts on the ground.
      Koskinen spent four days driving around with them in a Jeep, meeting mine-owners.
      A suitable mine was found about a day's travel from the capital Freetown.
      "The owner of the place was a colourful grandmother type of around 50 years of age. She advised us that it would be a good idea to supply the mine with old tools and machinery from Europe and food for the employees. In that way we would be a part of their lives and not just coming and exploiting their natural resources", says Koskinen.
The civil war that raged in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002 was funded in part by the diamond trade.
      The guerrilla troops of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgents were guilty of numerous crimes against humanity, such as abducting people - often children - and throwing them in to slave labour in the mines, or to serve as sex-slaves and forced foot-soldiers.
      They also made a stock-in-trade of savage mutilation: an estimated 20,000 civilian victims suffered amputation, with machetes and axes being used to sever arms, legs, and anything that could be cut off.
The UN peacekeeping operation (UNAMSIL) in the region came to an end in 2005.
      Some of those guilty of war crimes have been brought before the courts, and presidential and parliamentary elections were held in the country in 2007.
      In spite of the progress made since the war, Sierra Leone remains a dirt-poor country. It is also one of the world's most corrupt places, according to the lists of Transparency International, languishing in 158th place out of 180 countries examined.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, known generally as KPCS, was introduced in 2003 following a UN resolution, as a means of certifying the origin of rough diamonds from sources that are free from conflict.
      The system now permits the export of diamonds from Sierra Leone.
Aito Koskinen sees no obstacles to investing in Sierra Leonean diamonds.
      "After my trip there I was left with the sense that they now want to repair the damage done by the war. Money is no longer used to buy arms. The war itself was the most awful riot of killing and maiming. You can still see people out on the streets with arms that have been crudely lopped off. But it's now over", says Koskinen.
      He also did not see any obvious indications of corruption. "The diamond business is closely monitored, because it is an important source of revenue for the state coffers. All the stones leaving the country are Kimberley certified.
Koskinen did not himself go to any diamond mines in Sierra Leone. He has seen the workings of mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he has visited three times in the past four years.
      The conditions and the equipment used in African mines are still from a completely different era than those you encounter in Western countries.
      "The working conditions, and certainly the wages too, are not good, but if this job were to be forbidden to the people, how much worse off would they be? When nobody is being kept in slave-labour against their will or whipped to work harder, I see no cause to go banning the industry."
My own diamond has a Kimberley Process certificate. Even so, I cannot say for certain where the diamond came from or in what year. The document merely confirms that the stone has been produced legally.
      But if one wants a diamond, then for now KPCS certification will have to do, until someone comes up with a new certificate that can guarantee responsible mining operations and proper working conditions.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.5.2009

More on this subject:
 Monitoring against the flow of blood diamonds

  Kimberley Process Certification Scheme
  Diamonds (Wikipedia)

ELINA LAPPALAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat

  12.5.2009 - THIS WEEK
 Witness to the diamond trade

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