Diamonds aren’t the only kind of natural resource often tainted by bloodshed and abuse. Natural resources frequently cause more trouble than they’re worth, which is why people often speak of a “resource curse.” In fact, in a few cases natural resources have contributed to so much trouble that, like diamonds, they have earned the adjective “blood” or “conflict.” Here are a few examples:
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 by controlling the gold trade. The Enough Project, a non-profit group, recently estimated that rebels in Congo smuggle about $500 million worth of gold out of the country every year. They have been using this money to buy weapons and continue waging war.
Is your smartphone funding a civil war? These three metals, abundant in eastern Congo, are along with gold helping to finance Congo’s civil war. Tin, tantalum, and tungsten are all found in electronics, as well as other products. As demand for electronics has risen, so has demand for coltan, the raw metal used to make tantalum. About 80 percent of the word’s coltan is found in Africa, most of it in eastern Congo, making it difficult to break the link between Congo’s civil war and the devices that so many of us rely on daily.
Until 2011, the country known as Burma, or Myanmar, was controlled by a military dictatorship that earned much of its revenue from sapphires and jade sales. Although Burma has moved toward democracy, military leaders continue to suppress ethnic minorities and operate mines that rely on child labor and forced labor.
Elephant poaching in Africa has risen sharply of late, as poachers try to meet rising demand for ivory in China. Trade in ivory is supposed to banned by an international treaty. But militant groups have been ignoring the ban and financing themselves using ivory. These groups include the Al Shabab wing of Al Qaeda, the same group that attacked a Kenyan mall in September; the Janjaweed of Sudan, the group responsible for the Darfur genocide; and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan militant group terrorizing central Africa. “Blood ivory” is a fitting label, given both the funding for militants and the senseless slaughter of elephants.
The role of diamonds in fueling political instability in Cote d’Ivoire convinced the United Nations to ban diamond exports from the country in 2005. But rights groups believe that cocoa beans, the primary ingredient in chocolate, may have been an even larger factor. Cote d’Ivoire is the largest cocoa producer in the world, and cocoa production there continues to fund rebel militants. The reliance of the Ivorian cocoa industry on child labor is another serious problem.
“Blood timber” was used to describe logging in Liberia during the early 2000s that helped finance Charles Taylor’s corrupt and brutal government. More recently, it was used with reference to teak wood sold by the Burmese military junta. It has also been used as a general term for timber illegally extracted from protected areas.
The Rainforest Action Network, a non-profit group, issued a report in September on “conflict palm oil.” The report explains how rising demand for palm oil, an ingredient found in snack foods, has led to the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia, thereby contributing to global warming. New palm oil plantations are also taking away habitat from endangered orangutans and relying on child labor and forced labor. Up to 200,000 children may work as laborers on palm oil plantations.
There are a few takeaways here. One is that the terms “blood diamond” and “conflict diamond” seem to have spawned a new vocabulary. Ever since those terms became popularized in the late 1990s, the adjectives “blood” and “conflict” have been routinely used to describe other tainted products. The above list probably isn’t complete—for instance, it doesn’t even account for all the conflict created by petroleum—but it should give a sense of how “blood” and “conflict” terminology has mushroomed.
Probably it’s a good thing that there’s now a way to quickly communicate that a product comes from unethical origins. However, there are risks too—especially the risk of misleading people. The diamond industry deliberately uses the term “conflict free” to confuse consumers and sell them diamonds tainted by child labor, forced labor, and other abuses. The same potential for misleading consumers may exist with other products.
Another question that arises is this: why make a big deal about blood diamonds when so many other products come from unethical origins? It’s true that that considering origin can be extra work for consumers. Still, I’d argue that the fact that so many products aren’t produced responsibly provides all the more reason to try to buy with origin in mind. And the case for choosing ethical diamonds is a particularly good one, both because diamonds have caused especially serious suffering and because diamonds are usually a special, symbolic purchase.
A final observation, though, is that there is less product diversity here than you might think. Diamonds, gold, sapphire, jade, ivory, and even tungsten are all gems and metals used in jewelry, among other purposes. Selecting jewelry from socially-responsible jewelers can go a long way toward avoiding resources tainted by bloodshed and abuse.
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