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Looking for Untainted Diamonds in a Violent World

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And around the country, commercial radio stations are airing ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATION AD)

RONNIE MERVIS: This is Ronnie Mervis. With the release of Leonardo DiCaprio's movie about diamond smuggling, many people are concerned about so-called blood diamonds. I'd like to reassure them about our diamonds at Mervis.

NORRIS: The movie "Blood Diamond" has focused a spotlight on the dark side of the international diamond trade. The film features grisly depictions of violence surrounding the diamond industry in Sierra Leone, and that has many diamond sellers engaged in a PR campaign with ads like the one we just heard.

Human rights groups have sprung into action as well. They hope the film will prompt consumers to think about where their diamonds come from and avoid stones that are tainted by war or bloodshed. Alex Yearsley is a blood diamond campaigner for Global Witness, that's a nonprofit investigative human rights organization. He describes what consumers can look for at the jewelry store.

ALEX YEARSLEY: On the sales invoice, they will have a written statement that says these diamonds haven't been purchased in contravention of piracy and resolution or that we promise they are not blood diamonds. And it's like, well, fantastic, great. But what does that mean? And it means nothing. And as they had an independent auditor going through all of those purchase and sales invoices to verify them back to the companies they bought them from. And then, the company that they bought them from, they got to have done exactly the same thing, so you need a complete chain of security.

NORRIS: So if you're listening right now and you want to buy that diamond for someone special in your life, what do you do?

YEARSLEY: It's a tough call. What we would say is if you genuinely want to buy that diamond, then you are going to have to shop around. There are certain companies and certain retailers that I think have put more effort into it. They have single suppliers that buy from, you know, say one particular country. But that also leads to particular problems down the line. Some people will say, well, buy only Canadian diamonds because we can guarantee you they're conflict free. And we don't believe that is the answer. We believe that Africa has to prosper from its natural resources.

What we would like to see is those diamonds being manufactured and polished in those countries, rather than the system at the moment, where diamonds are mixed together and they try to maximize the benefit. Fool the middleman in the industry and fool the retailer.

NORRIS: The diamond industry, as you know, has launched an extensive public relations campaign to say that they are compliant with this process, that folks like you are exaggerating this issue.

YEARSLEY: I would like to show them a documentary that would be showing off some undercover footage that was taken in New York several weeks ago, where a Sierra Leone journalist just pretending to be from the Congo, comes around with a rough diamond valued at $50,000. He goes into 10 rough diamond buyers on 47th Street. Nine out of ten of those guys offer to buy the diamond, after he's publicly told them he has no paperwork, he has no certification, he didn't import it legally. They put money on the table, and they wanted to buy it. And they were happily explaining that they buy diamonds all the time from Ivory Coast, from Sierra Leone, from Congo, from Angola.

And the diamond industry is trying to tell us this problem is solved. They are not effectively policing themselves.

NORRIS: Now, you want consumers to walk into the store and ask these questions. Is there evidence that that's happening?

YEARSLEY: Ah, yes. There's a number of, you know, outlets we're getting information back, speaking to retailers, they say it is increasing. People are coming in. They're asking questions, especially in light of the film. I think one thing interestingly that happened in when we were in L.A. for the premiere of the film, women actually started taking off their diamond jewelry in the restrooms afterwards. And we don't want too negatively impact the diamond industry. But they've got to start matching rhetoric with action. And consumers are becoming educated.

NORRIS: Alex, it's been so good to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

YEARSLEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: Alex Yearsley is a blood diamond campaigner for Global Witness. He was speaking to us about how consumers can ensure that they are not fueling war or other conflicts when making a diamond purchase. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.