A Guerrilla's Best Friend

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Are diamonds the new fur? that's the way it looked a fortnight ago when growing concern over the trade in conflict, or "blood," diamonds—gems used to fund bloody African wars—scuppered the plans of Oryx Natural Resources, a mining company seeking a listing on London's Alternative Investment Market. The Cayman Islands-registered company has a deal with the Zimbabwean and Democratic Republic of Congo governments to mine a diamond concession near the town of Mbuji Mayi in the D.R.C. worth an estimated $1 billion. The concession is in territory controlled by Zimbabwean troops, who support the Congolese government against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda. But following reports of British government opposition to Oryx's plans, and direct pressure from the Foreign Office, the company's financial adviser quit, leaving the London listing in limbo and Oryx company directors looking at alternative markets in Ireland and North America. Said Peter Hain, Foreign Office Minister for Africa: "Oryx should not touch the Congo with a barge pole in the present circumstances."

Not fair, responds Oryx deputy managing director Geoffrey White, who denies that Oryx will be producing conflict diamonds and says that the firm's deal is not with rebel groups but, like other joint ventures in the region, a sovereign national government. "This is all inward investment by us and that creates jobs and prosperity locally on the ground," says White. "That has to be the way forward for Africa."

That argument finds few supporters, and the fighting this year in Sierra Leone has increased global attention on the role diamonds and other natural resources play in many of Africa's ugliest wars. The week Oryx's listing went bust, the U.K. convinced its European Union partners to suspend $47 million in aid to Liberia because of its support for the outlaw Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Liberia's stake in the dispute is its access to illicit diamonds. "The link between conflict, diamonds and suffering has now entered the public consciousness," says Alex Yearsley, a campaigner with U.K.-based human rights group Global Witness, which is pushing for a global certification system for diamonds.

South Africa-based diamond giant De Beers, which controls two-thirds of the $6.8 billion diamond industry and fears that the conflict diamonds campaign could stigmatize all diamonds, wants tighter import and export controls in diamond trading centers like Antwerp, Mumbai and Tel Aviv. "The image of an amputee in Sierra Leone is obviously an uncomfortable one," De Beers director Tim Capon said recently. Especially when, rightly or wrongly, it can be identified with the product you're selling.

—by Simon Robinson/Nairobi