There are about a million artisanal diamond diggers in Africa who live in extreme poverty. For the last century they’ve been mostly forgotten, left to toil in dangerous pits while barely earning enough to eat. But now a group based in Ottawa is leading an initiative to change that—to raise labor and environmental standards and give diamond diggers a fair deal. It’s called the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), and it’s one of the groups that we support at Brilliant Earth through our non-profit fund.
I recently had the privilege to talk with Dorothée Gizenga, DDI’s Executive Director. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: My first question is about your background. I know that you were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Did you experience the war there? Were you in Congo during the Mobutu dictatorship (1965-1997)?
A: No, my history is that I lived in Congo until I was four years old when my father, a politician [Antoine Gizenga], went into exile. That was the start of the dictatorship. We lived in exile going from one country to another. Mainly the former Soviet Union, then France and Algeria and Angola. And then I came to Canada by myself on a scholarship.
Q: What got you interested in conflict diamond issues?
A: I was doing a foreign affairs fellowship here in Canada when I saw an advertisement from Partnership Africa Canada [a leading advocacy group on conflict diamonds]. They were looking for someone who would work in Angola and run some programs there. And I was interested because I speak Portuguese. I had lived in Angola. I consider it like my own second country. And so I applied for the job.
Through Partnership Africa Canada, I got involved in the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification system. Partnership Africa Canada was one of the founding members of the Kimberley Process. In 2008, I was asked to lead the Diamond Development Initiative.
Q: Which country do you feel most connected to?
A: I have settled in Canada. I have children here in Canada. Yeah, when the plane lands in Canada, it feels like home.
Q: Let’s go to the Diamond Development Initiative. Could you give me an overview of what it is and the concept behind it?
A: The Diamond Development Initiative was created to parallel the Kimberley Process and to address the development issues that the Kimberley Process itself did not address. We work in countries, such as Sierra Leone and the DRC, to help transform artisanal mining into an activity that generates wealth and promotes development.
From the beginning, one of the most important ideas behind the Diamond Development Initiative was that you could invest in artisanal mining. And that those investments could pay dividends. The approach of most governments, historically, has been to ban artisanal mining. To get rid of it. Governments from the colonial era and in modern times have seen it as a nuisance. Yet they never had alternatives for their citizens who were very poor.
We have created a pilot program, the Development Diamonds StandardsTM. Diamond miners in Sierra Leone are now participating in the program and mining diamonds in a responsible way. We also work with governments to convince them of the need to work with the miners, to formalize them, legalize them. Give them the proper tools because it is not such a big investment to give them some mechanized tools. And they will be able to produce more for the benefit of the economy.
Q: And what have you been able to achieve so far, since starting in 2008?
A: We’ve seen real changes in the communities where we have implemented the Development Diamonds Standards. We have sensitized artisanal miners to the standards and built the capacity of miners to apply the standards in their mining operations. There is no child labor right now at our mining sites. Before at those sites there was child labor. We’ve helped put children in safety. The conditions of work and the pay the miners receive are better. And now we are putting into place supportive programs such as schooling so that the children that we moved out of the mines can go somewhere.
I have to say that when we first went into Sierra Leone, there was this development fatigue. And everywhere we were told, you know, that Sierra Leone is such a desperate and lost case. “You’ll never be able to do anything,” they said. But that wasn’t true. You know, we kept doing it, learning. And in the process we discovered that contrary to popular belief, these miners really do want change. They really want to operate within the legal system. They really want to be able to assume their own responsibilities so that they are able to mine ethically.
These communities have always had so many aid groups coming and going. But we are still there. We have not left them. And there is that element that is priceless. Because we have stayed, because we have operated in a consistent way, we have set a positive direction and created hope for sustainability.
Q: The work that you’re doing is so important. Which is why I wonder why you’re still in need of funding. Global retail diamond jewelry sales topped $70 billion in 2012. The diamond industry is very successful.
A: $70 billion? Invest a small percentage of that in artisanal mining and I’ll be happy.
Q: But why don’t you have all the resources that you need?
A: I don’t know. When we make our presentations to the members of the diamond industry there isn’t necessarily understanding by everyone of what we are doing. We are trying to explain to them that this is not about charity. We are presenting a business case. It is good for the industry. It is good for their reputation. It is also good for their productivity and the availability of the product in the market.
There have been no kimberlite pipes [concentrated diamond deposits mined by the diamond industry] found in the last 10 years. And there is no anticipation that there will be a kimberlite find in the next 10 years. So there is more and more reliance on artisanally produced diamonds. And so it stands to reason that then you really want to invest in this and make it a more productive economic activity.
But what people are used to is a project such as sponsoring children. Or you say you are building a road or a school or putting in a clinic somewhere. That they understand. It is harder when you are talking about systemic change, a transformation of the sector so that people can get fair prices and operate in ethical conditions with health and safety. That somehow doesn’t grab them as much.
The other factor is the time that’s needed. Basically, donors and governments want quick wins for their dollars. They want to be able to say that in this particular fiscal year, we donated to this project and it produced this particular impact. Artisanal mining is not going to change overnight. It’s been neglected for over 100 years. It will take time. And that’s the time that theoretically some donors don’t have.
That all said, we do have great supporters. There are people and companies and organizations that get it and that understand the role of artisanal mining in the supply chain and that very much care. They know that the diamond supply is now relying on artisanal mining more than anything else. The others, we still need to work at it. It’s a process, you know. And I mean we’ve only been in existence six years.
Q: The world has been following the Ebola outbreak with great concern. In what ways has the Diamond Development Initiative been affected?
A: Well one of the countries where we operate is Sierra Leone and the Ebola virus is present there. Our headquarters staff in Canada hasn’t been able to go to Sierra Leone for the past few months. We’ve wanted to be there to reinforce our programs and do trainings. We have everything lined up except that we cannot go there.
We also have staff on the ground that we have to make sure is protected. And there are not many ways we can do that from Canada. We have to provide them the support so that they can protect themselves. And they tend not to have the information that we have here. So one of our support systems is forwarding to them the information that we collect on what’s happening in the region.
Q: So far, all of your staff has been safe?
A: Yes, so far. So far as we know.
Q: That’s good to hear. There’s been so much concern about Ebola and probably a lot of misinformation. Which brings me to another question I’d like to ask. What are some of the misconceptions that Americans or Canadians have about developing countries in Africa?
A: Well, in terms of artisanal mining, many people say: if it is so bad, why are the miners doing it? What people don’t understand is that artisanal mining is a matter of survival. The miners just can’t leave it. They depend on it to eat.
There are other misconceptions. For example, many people tend to think of Africa as one single country. And they hear something bad about somewhere and they think it’s the same everywhere. And yet we have places where things are going well, improving. There are countries like Botswana. There are countries like Namibia. There are countries like Lesotho that have no problem in terms of diamond production. So it is a much more complex situation than people realize.
Q: I guess that complexity is a challenge for us too, at Brilliant Earth, because we’re trying to let consumers know that there is such a thing as ethical diamonds from Africa. At the same time, we’re trying to raise awareness about a lot of the unethical practices and abuses.
A: Well, I’m sure your job is not easy. You have to find the right words—the right kind combination of words to give that impactful message.
Q: That’s true. And that reminds me to ask you about the movie Blood Diamond [released in 2006]. That movie, I think, helped popularize the idea of blood diamonds. What did you think about the movie?
A: You know, when it was being produced, there was a big insistence on the part of Partnership Africa Canada and Global Witness [another advocacy group] that they put a disclaimer at the end saying that the war in Sierra Leone no longer exists. Because the way it was being portrayed, the viewer would have left with the impression that it is a raging war, when the war was over in 2002.
The other thing is that the industry was very nervous. But you know, they actually benefited from the movie. Their sales were never better than in that December before the movie. So it turned out quite differently than they predicted.
I personally felt that the movie was a bit chauvinistic because I didn’t like the fact that the father of the boy was only concerned with the boy. He found his wife and daughters alive and never expressed any relief or gratitude to find them alive. He was just obsessed with his son. And that didn’t sit well with me. I may be too much of a feminist, but in the circumstances of war if you find some members of your family alive—there should have been some kind of more positive reaction. So as a movie viewer I was critical of some parts.
Most of it, by the way, was filmed in South Africa even though the story is about Sierra Leone. That just shows the logistical difficulties of doing it in the actual place.
Q: I’d like to talk a little bit about jewelry. Do you like jewelry yourself and do you have a favorite piece of jewelry that you own?
A: I didn’t used to be much of a jewelry person because I was kind of modest in many ways. Anything that’s trying to attract attention to me, I didn’t necessarily like. But because I’m now involved in this particular industry I always tell African Ministers of Mines, I say, “You are from a diamond producing country. How come I don’t see you or your spouse wearing diamonds?” I think that they should showcase the product of their country. Men can also wear diamonds—cufflinks or whatever. Of course if the ministers or their spouses followed my suggestion, I would be asking them how they paid for the diamonds!
So I became conscious that I needed to be able to wear jewelry to show that this is the product that comes from our people in Africa. And yes, I do wear jewelry. My favorite item is diamond earrings that I bought in Las Vegas. Very small diamonds, of course. That’s what I wear on special occasions and for when I want to show it to the miners.
Q: So you’ve shown diamond jewelry to artisanal miners? What is their reaction usually?
A: Well, most miners in Africa don’t know what a polished diamond looks like, especially the diggers. The diggers see rough diamonds but they never see the finished product. I would say 95 percent of them have never seen a finished product. And they don’t even know what diamonds are for, what people do with them.
We actually do a lot of educational programming that incorporates information about diamond jewelry. That’s one of the parts that miners get very excited about—when we talk about international markets and how diamonds are put into jewelry. They are very, very interested. We create images, cartoon drawings to explain to them. And then my earrings or a ring goes around, and they see and they say, “That’s all it is for?”
It’s always that reaction. They just can’t understand those hours and months of digging, all of that just goes to this? Because they don’t find diamonds every day. They don’t find diamonds every month. You know, they get shocked. “That’s all it is for?” they say. Because the result is not a big building or a ship or something. It’s just a piece of jewelry on your finger or some earrings. But that’s the reality of the world.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add—anything else you’d like to communicate to our customers?
A: I actually want them to know how thankful DDI is to Brilliant Earth for your sustainable support. Because it was not a one-time donation which some people get contented with. Brilliant Earth supports us without us even asking sometimes. I wish everybody were like that. I mean, ever since this partnership began you have never failed us. And if I had to get a message out there, I’d say that that is the kind of support that is necessary to sustain the change that we need in the life of miners and in the artisanal mining sector.
Q: We should be thanking you instead for leading a program that is building a brighter future for artisanal diamond miners. Thank you. And thank you for speaking with me.
A: Thank you, Greg.