With the most romantic day of the year officially upon us, there's a fairly decent chance you've looked into buying a glimmering hunk of crystalline carbon at some point recently: Jewelry remains one of the most popular Valentine's Day gifts in the U.S., according to the statistics and market research portal Statista, with diamonds being many consumers' go-to gemstone.
That's a major problem.
Diamonds are a bit like Regina George of Mean Girls: Gorgeous at first glance; plagued with human rights violations when you take a deeper look. The industry at large has a dark history of abuse and exploitation, and unfortunately — even with the legal standards currently in place — a great deal of that continues today.
Within the mines of Africa, which supplies about two-thirds of all the world's diamonds, is the heart of an industry worth nearly $82 billion as of 2014, TIME Magazine reported. For decades, men and women across the continent have been forced via slave labor to mine diamonds known as "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" in war zones, which are then used to fund rebel movements.
News of these unethically sourced stones began to spread in the late '90s and early 2000s, becoming a part of mainstream culture in 2006 with the release of the movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
In order to address the issue — i.e. make sure people buying diamonds weren't unknowingly financing armed conflicts — representatives from diamond producers in Southern Africa met in Kimberley, South Africa, in spring 2000. It was there that they came up with the Kimberley Process, a system in which participants had to prove that their diamonds were conflict-free by establishing certain legislation, enacting import and export guidelines, and refusing to trade with nonparticipants, among other things. By 2003, 52 governments had implemented the process.
Still, the Kimberley Process' definition of “conflict diamonds” is narrow: According to TIME, they're defined as "gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state — and only that." As a result, a number of human rights abuses still occur, including the use of child labor. As TIME pointed out, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are as young as 12 have dropped out of school to begin working in diamond mines. Out of desperation, parents often send their teenagers to the mines instead of school.
The Kimberley Process also fails to stop a great deal of violence embedded within the diamond industry. In 2008, for instance, the Zimbabwean army seized control of a number of diamond deposits, reportedly killing 200 miners and raping, injuring, and enslaving many others. But because the assault was not a technically a rebel movement, Zimbabwe hadn't violated the Kimberley Process, and the diamonds coming from the mines in which the assaults occurred weren't technically considered conflict diamonds.
On top of both of those issues, some blood diamonds simply slip through the Kimberley Process' cracks. Diamonds that don’t pass its certification are often smuggled into other countries and traded from there, sold with guarantees that assure they're “conflict-free.” According to CNBC, a 2015 study by the Enough Project found that armed groups in the Central African Republic make $3 million to $6 million dollars on blood diamonds each year by smuggling their diamonds into other countries, using the profits from their sales to fund war ventures.
And then there's the environmental impact of diamond mining, which the Kimberley Process doesn't even touch. Writes the Environmental Literacy Council:
"In certain parts of Sierra Leone and other diamond-rich west African regions, there is little infrastructure in place to enforce whatever environmental regulations may exist. In these regions, in addition to the human costs associated with 'conflict diamonds,' the environmental toll of diamond mining operations can be steep — pits are left open and loose fill is left unmanaged to runoff into rivers and streams, often with catastrophic effects."
Unfortunately, all-out boycott of the diamond industry would do very little to solve the problem of blood diamonds at large. As Mwanza, a 15-year-old Congolese diamond miner, told TIME: “If people stop buying our diamonds, we won’t be able to eat … We still won’t be able to go to school. How does that help us?”
If you must purchase a diamond this Valentine’s Day, then, make sure to thoroughly research yout jeweler and, above all, ask questions. Find out where your diamonds are coming from. Seek out those mined in countries like Botswana, Canada, and Namibia, whose standards are strict, as TIME noted. Through responsible consumerism, we can certainly begin to pressure the diamond industry to do better.