Blood on the Stone: Greed, Corruption and War in the Global Diamond Trade

Smillie, Ian
Anthem Press, International Development Research Centre, 2010, ISBN: 978 1 55250 498 7, 237 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Susan Elliott
UNITEC New Zealand

Ian Fleming's 1956 novel Diamonds are Forever begins by recounting an incident on a moonlit night in the Sierra Leonean diamond fields. A scorpion greedily crushes, poisons and devours a beetle, only to be trodden on and killed itself by a villain whom James Bond then goes on to encounter and eventually squash. Bond's job is to travel down the ‘diamond pipeline’ as far as he can and find out who is behind the smuggling, extortion and fraud.
In Blood on the Stone, Smillie travels much the same pipeline, telling us ‘this book is about how diamonds fuelled some of the most brutal wars in Africa’ (p. 1). Fleming's account of the scorpion blocking the path of and feasting on the beetle bears a marked resemblance to the cruelty of the diamond industry over the past 50 years or so. Blood on the Stone's accounts of intrigue, deceits, fraud, arms dealers, secret flights, banditry, butchery, brutality, mercenaries, money laundering, espionage, terrorism networks, trafficking and pawnbrokers, make me wonder why works of fiction such as Ian Fleming's Diamonds are Forever are necessary at all. There's far more here than any novel could provide.
Ian Smillie began his career as a teacher in a Sierra Leonean diamond mining area in the 1960s. Forty years later he confronts Charles Taylor as an exceedingly well informed witness at an international war crimes trial in The Hague. Getting to that point meant many years spent as a committed development worker, meticulous and brave researcher, human rights defender and UN expert.
But Blood on the Stone is about far more than how diamonds funded vicious conflicts. Early on it becomes apparent that this is also the story of how Smillie became involved in a campaign involving development and human rights NGOs and some committed individuals from within the industry that changed the way the industry operates. Although Smillie is now disillusioned with the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (adopted in 2003 to regularise the trade in rough diamonds), the reasons for its development, and the process whereby governments, NGOs and industry representatives worked together to develop it, provides a lens through which to analyse the industry, the span of power of Africa's colonisers and late twentieth century civil wars, and the porous nature of Western borders and (so-called) global social responsibility.
The book starts by reminding us of James Bond's exploits alongside accounts of the diamond industry's actual operations in the decolonisation period in Africa, and ends with a step-by-step account of the process of developing and negotiating the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme in the early 2000s, and its early floundering. With disappointment Smillie tells us: it had ‘no teeth … no brains’ (p. 5). On the way we learn details of the often ironical linkages between the wars in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Israel and al Qaeda. It spans the borders of Europe, takes us into the dealing rooms of Antwerp which see more than 80% of the world's rough diamonds every year, through Israel, around the many twists in the diamond producing pipeline where diamonds always take the path of less resistance, and into the detailed inner working of the diamond industry. Omnipresent is De Beers, the most enduring and influential of all the companies. So much so, that it doesn't appear in the index of the book even though it's there in nearly every scenario in every chapter.
Every chapter opens with a highly apt quote: from literature, religious texts, media reports, popular music, jokes, testimonies, historical documents, political figures, company reports. The range of quotes mirrors the breadth and depth of the research behind the publication, which is the hallmark of Smillie's work. Detailing the accounts of how diamonds travel makes the need for researcher's perseverance and attention to detail apparent. However, this detail is perhaps the one weakness I would identify for a general reader who could lose the thread of an overall argument or situation in the convoluted story and the amount of detail included. The detail is necessary to establish credibility and inform specialist readers; while never boring it may be daunting for the general reader.
Describing his work as part of UN Security Council's Expert Panel, Smillie notes that the decent people in the industry are equally frustrated and disgusted as readers will be by those he describes as ‘thieves, smugglers, killers and some of the world's most repulsive scum’ (p. 5). Smillie's candour and his contempt for the environmental damage, despair at the human rights abuses, greed, and extortion glints off every page, as light reflects off the many faces of a cut diamond.
I would recommend this book to anyone contemplating buying a piece of diamond jewellery. Once you've read the book you'll think twice and will save yourself thousands of dollars.
But the book is also invaluable for development practitioners and researchers interested in the role NGO advocacy and campaigning can play in influencing international opinion and negotiating international agreements. Through recounting the process of the development of the KPCS Smillie highlights the essential characteristics development practitioners must have to make a difference; tenacity, the need to develop and maintain diverse long-term relationships, honed research skills in order to produce credible reports, media contacts, and the courage to speak out against injustice.
The index alone is worth perusing given that it reads like a glossary. Nearly every cosmopolitan European and African capital, financial institution, UN agency, human rights NGOs, key individuals, major companies, political leader and diamond producing company is listed.
I don't own any diamond jewellery. Having read Blood on the Stone, I never will. But if you do own a glistening piece, you may as well hold onto it. The resale value is minimal in comparison to what you paid for it, and nothing in comparison to the lives lost in getting it onto your finger.