Mar. 14, 2001 Amherst, MA - A University of Massachusetts geologist is among researchers hoping that science can help bring peace to war-torn Africa. Stephen Haggerty, an expert in the geology of diamonds, is part of a group of scientists who met at the White House earlier this year to begin discussing how to "fingerprint" diamonds. The effort is aimed at stamping out a lucrative - and bloody - guns-for-gems trade that is reportedly financing brutal civil wars in Africa.
At the heart of the matter are the gemstones known as "conflict diamonds" - an estimated 4 percent of the diamonds sold annually. Human rights groups have reported that rebel groups in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola are financing civil wars by trading diamonds for artillery and other military hardware. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research estimates that more than a billion dollars in such diamonds have been sold in the past decade.
The international community, including the United Nations, is searching for a way to identify the source of rough diamonds and track the import and export of gemstones. Legislation supporting such a system may soon be introduced to the U.S. Congress as well. "In absence of fingerprinting, a conscientious consumer can't be certain that the diamond he or she is buying didn't contribute to people's suffering," said Haggerty, of the wars that have resulted in the deaths or maiming of thousands of people. "The onus is on the diamond industry to ensure the stones have a clean history."
The origins of a small percentage of diamonds can be determined by their appearance. Certain eight-sided clear diamonds are known to come from Siberia. Those with a green cast are from central Africa; those that are pink are Australian. However, the vast majority are untraceable. "Science has traditionally searched for the circumstances of a stone's birth within the Earth - geologically rather than geographically," noted Haggerty. "There's never been an incentive to find a stone's geographical home, so very little work has been done on this."
The fingerprinting effort faces several obstacles, according to Haggerty. One is the sheer numbers of stones: "No one is going to be able to fingerprint 300,000 items per year. It's just not economically viable." Also, the diamond industry is steeped in tradition, he said, and part of that tradition means putting very little information on paper. "A deal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars may be sealed with just a look, or a nod of the head. The diamond industry is very insular. It will not accept having business negotiations available and known to the public." Little is available in terms of current technology, Haggerty explained. Making some sort of "bar code" in a jewel's interior would mar its prized interior reflections. The surface adhesion of grease to diamond may allow for a DNA-type analysis in which dietary habits or perspiration characteristics particular to a region are preserved. Other experts have offered the idea of examining the isotopic signatures of dirt and clay trapped in cracks and in imperfectly formed stones. But in all of these, the tracer would be removed when the stone was polished, and the identification of the stone's source would be lost. "Nondestructive spectroscopic techniques need to be explored," Haggerty said.
"We as scientists really have an opportunity to put a stop to the selling of conflict diamonds. The scientific work we've done all these years has tremendous potential to make a difference," Haggerty said. "There are political, societal, and humanitarian implications, and we have an obligation."
A measure of his commitment to the issue, Haggerty said, is that his Fulbright Fellowship and field work in India were interrupted to give an invited talk at the White House Diamond Conference, held earlier this year. "Following this unprecedented experience, I returned to India, and while in Rajasthan, felt the initial jolt and the rolling shock waves from the devastating earthquake in Gurakarat on January 26," he noted. "Geology is indeed an extraordinary profession, but the human link is rarely appreciated."
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