People are increasingly becoming aware of an unfortunate fact: many diamonds have histories of bloodshed and exploitation. In Africa, civil wars fueled by “blood” or “conflict” diamonds have claimed an estimated 3.7 million lives. Diamond mining is also riddled with troubling labor and environmental practices. Go to some diamond mining areas in Sierra Leone or Angola and you’ll find child labor, ruined landscapes, and diamond diggers earning a dollar a day.
The good news is that the word about blood diamonds is slowly getting out. More and more consumers want diamonds, and particularly engagement rings, sourced from areas free of conflict and human rights abuses. Less well known is that lots of other products have such a bad reputation that they’ve also earned a “blood” or “conflict” label. Here are five such products that you might not know about, along with tips on what to do.
That monthly smartphone bill of yours may be high, but the true cost of your smartphone could be higher. A civil war in eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998. Rebel groups obtain much of their financing from gold and as well as tin, tantalum, and tungsten. These “conflict minerals” are used in a range of products, including jewelry and electronic devices such as smartphones.
U.S. legislation passed in 2009 requires certain large companies to publicly disclose whether their products contain conflict minerals from Congo. The law has convinced some companies to change their sourcing practices. (Intel, for instance, has announced that all its microprocessors are now conflict free.) But consumers can also help by steering clear of conflict minerals.
Blood Rubies & Colored Gems
Rubies, sapphires, and jade are stunning gems. Sapphires, especially, are growing more popular. But not every colored gem has a happy history. In Burma, also known as Myanmar, colored gemstone mining relies on child labor and forced labor. Mining profits also fund a brutal conflict between the military and ethnic minorities in Burma’s northern Kachin State. As of September 2013, the conflict had forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes.
Although Burma’s military dictatorship ended in 2011, the United States has maintained a ban on Burmese sapphires, rubies, and jade due to ongoing abuses. That ban, however, is difficult to enforce, because the gems are being smuggled into China and Thailand and then re-exported. Consumers should recognize that it’s possible to buy rubies and sapphires from select, ethical sources. But consider avoiding all newly mined jade, since the vast majority of it comes from Burma.
Four elephants are killed every hour. More than 30,000 elephants are slaughtered every year. Elephant poaching in Africa has risen sharply of late, driven by rising demand for ivory in China. Some of Africa’s most vicious militant groups, including the Al Shabab wing of Al Qaeda, are taking the lead in the ivory trade, using the cash to finance more violence. “Blood ivory” is a fitting description, given the funding for militants and the senseless killing of elephants.
Although a treaty bans the international trade in ivory, smugglers have paid no attention. In a rebuke to the ivory trade, the Obama administration crushed six tons of illegal ivory last year. President Obama also has announced a ban on almost all ivory sales in the United States, the world’s second biggest ivory market. Ivory is one product that consumers should best avoid, for ethical and now legal reasons. It’s also possible to take action by signing this online petition.
Conflict Palm Oil
Next time you head to the snack machine, don’t just count calories. Take a look at whether you are consuming any palm oil, an ingredient found in crackers, potato chips, canned soups, and half of all packaged foods. This relatively unknown ingredient has hidden social and environmental costs. In Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil plantations are gobbling up rainforest, endangering orangutans, threatening forest-dependent communities, and exploiting workers. In Malaysia alone, up to 200,000 children may work on palm oil plantations.
Rainforest Action Network (RAN), the group leading the campaign against what it calls “conflict palm oil,” has identified 20 influential snack brand companies that have the power to change how palm oil is produced. The group doesn’t ask people to avoid all palm oil, but it does call on consumers to make their voices heard. Through RAN’s web site, it’s possible to send a letter—or a photo of your palm with a message scrawled on it—to the major snack brand companies.
One of the most beloved foods out there—chocolate—has a dark side you might not know about. Cote d’Ivoire produces about a third of the world’s cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. But cocoa production there has a troubling history. For many years, cocoa funded rebel militants in the country’s north. The conflict is now over, but the focus has shifted to another problem: child labor. Anywhere from 300,000 to one million children, some of them trafficked, work on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Many have never tasted chocolate themselves.
A group called Stop the Traffik is working to raise awareness and pressure the major chocolate manufacturers to change their sourcing practices. According to the group, there’s no need for consumers to give up chocolate—thank goodness. Stop the Traffik recommends buying certified chocolate instead. (One option, for instance, is chocolate made from fair trade cocoa.) The group also suggests organizing a chocolate fondue party to educate your friends and family.