Forensic geochemistry to foil “fencing” of conflict diamonds

The longest and most devastating wars in history have centred rather more on economic interests than nationalism or chivalrous defence of principles, and in some case a specific commodity created an issue that annexation served to resolve.  For instance, the 1914-18 war was not unconnected with the vast iron ore reserves of Alsace-Lorraine.  Similarly, the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s was bound up with the oil reserves of the Niger delta, and that of Congo centred on base-metal resources of the Copper Belt, particularly the fact that vast strategic reserves of cobalt occur in its Congolese sector.  The running sores of present conflicts in Africa – Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia – are about and financed by gems that adorn the rich, the self-regarding and the lazy.  These diamond wars are a direct concern of geologists, for who else finds the elusive kimberlites and traces the natural dispersion of the diamonds that they contain?

More than 30 years on from the start of gem-related carnage in Africa, in which dealers and giant mining corporations have been implicated up to their collective eyebrows, local people have been drawn into “illicit” diamond mining when their livelihoods have been destroyed by perpetual danger and insecurity.  Preyed on by many so-called “rebel” groups, even kids as young as 8 or 9 have been armed and set upon one another and the inhabitants of regions blighted by the presence of what is no more than an allotrope of carbon.  Eugenie Samuel writes on a possible means of defining the source of diamonds “fenced” by the gem trade from on-going conflict zones (Samuel, E. 2002.  Diamond wars.  New Scientist, 25 May 2002, p. 6-7).  It seems that ultra-thin coatings on rough diamonds carry a geochemical signature from the chemically diverse kimberlites and other unusual mafic rocks that carry them from the mantle.  Given research on rough stones from every kimberlite province it should be possible for this forensic approach to help stamp out what is the world’s largest blood trade. 

The problems are many.  For a start, trade in “conflict diamonds” is now illegal, so it is unlikely that rough stones used to calibrate the technique would be given a bona fide provenance by dealers. It would be a courageous geochemist who went sampling in interior Congo, Angola, Liberia or Sierra Leone.  The method clearly requires funds, yet the obvious source, diamond mining and trading companies, are engaged in their own tagging schemes that use using ion beams to bar-code their products on a minute scale.  In fact this tagging method was developed under great secrecy to distinguish from the “real” thing perfect artificial diamond gems synthesized by Russian geochemists.  Finding diamonds requires considerable exploration, which involves systematic sampling of sediments along streams that drain likely kimberlite-bearing ground.  Although high-quality rough found by geologists would be sold, there must be small diamonds archived from such sampling by mining companies and geological surveys.  They could be supplied to forensic geochemists to calibrate the method.  In Sierra Leone, for instance, the diamond fields were located in the early 1950s by geologists of the then Overseas Geological Survey – part of what became the modern British Geological Survey.  Belgian and Portuguese equivalents may well have archival material from Congo and Angola.

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