Thursday, April 12, 2007

93. Diamonds not so friendly

Diamonds are said to be a women's best friend. It is a relationship that many clever marketing slogans have promoted, such as the idea that, "A Diamond is Forever." Their beauty is used to symbolize love and commitment; their size and value insinuates affluence and privilege.

About ten years ago, like many other couples considering engagement, my future wife and I went shopping for a fitting, yet affordable, diamond ring. We made the tour through the mall, looking for the perfect size and price. I made note of her favorites- so that upon an official proposal, she would not be disappointed. Later, I purchased a ring, making payments over several months, and waited for the right moment.

In December of 1996, we took a trip to Toronto, Canada, to see the Phantom of the Opera at the famous Pantages Theatre. On the way, we stopped at Niagara on the Lake and stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel. It turned out to be a beautiful night, fallen by a brisk but romantic snow. It was here that I proposed to my wife. As special as that night was for us, it is a ritual that has taken place a million times before.

In terms of the commitment, the ring was an afterthought. Not because it was not endearing, but because I did it without any specific reason. In other words, I did it out of tradition- because that is what "everybody" does. I did not consider where the diamond came from, where it was cut and polished, or even if it was a fair price. The rule of thumb (an ironic reference if you know the origin of the phrase) is that men are supposed to spend two months salary on the ring.

Since I could not afford much, I pledged secretly to myself that after five years I would buy her a bigger diamond. And that is what I did. For our five-year anniversary, I snuck off with her ring and replaced it with a larger diamond. I thought the larger diamond was not only a gift of her commitment and sacrifice over the previous five years, but also a reflection of our growing relationship.

Now, ten years later, having learned about diamonds and the diamond trade, I have some regrets in the process. Diamonds have a tumultuous history, inclusive of greed, power, war and slave labor. Unfortunately, what now sparkles nicely on my wife's finger is a better reflection of the world we live in.

Americans, with their great wealth, purchase 50 percent of all the diamonds produced in the world. To this end, DeBeers, the world's largest diamond seller, has been accused of controlling the supply of diamonds to drive up prices. But the story goes much deeper than the supply chain that provides Americans the diamonds they so much adore at exaggerated prices. Diamonds have been the source of human rights violations and atrocities in terms of slave labor and the many wars and conflicts fought over control of the diamond mines.

The following excerpt is from an series on diamonds by Petra Cahill:

"The search for diamonds is not exactly easy. Many miners and diamond diggers in sub-Saharan Africa travel great distances to find work and submit to gruelingly long hours for low wages - or sometimes no wages - in substandard conditions.

The informal mining industry is where workers tend to be most exploited. In the Wild West atmosphere of many informal diamond mines, the quest for the "big find" - and the financial gain it promises - is the all-encompassing goal, and all other issues of morality or civic responsibility go out the window."

In addition to the slave-like labor often used to excavate the diamond mines, war often breaks out between the groups and countries- which are funded by these valuable diamond mines. Amnesty International reports,

"Conflict or blood diamonds fuel conflict, civil wars and human rights abuses. They have been responsible for funding recent conflicts in Africa which resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people. During these conflicts, profits from the illegal trade in diamonds, worth billions of dollars, were used by warlords and rebels to buy arms. An estimated 3.7 million people have died in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Sierra Leone in conflicts fuelled by diamonds."

The History Channel also ran an exposé on the history of the diamond trade inclusive of gruesome pictures and narrative from people who suffered in the battle over diamonds. The rebel organization, Revolution United Front, trademarked amputation as a reminder of their objective to control the diamond mines. One individual, who was interviewed, had both his hands cut off because he had voted for the "wrong" political party. Many others, including a shocking number of children and women, had legs and arms cut off.

In response, Amnesty International and other organizations were successful in lobbying the United Nation General Assembly to adopt legislation that eventually led to the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme- a process which is designed to break the link associated with conflict diamonds and human rights violations. This self-regulated certification, in short, tracks the shipments of diamonds and maintains that they are "conflict-free." Governments and industry are only to engage in trade with the diamonds that are ethically obtained- which, in theory, renders the "blood diamonds" worthless.

There are discrepancies as to the effectiveness of this process, but at least the issue has been brought to the table. And, more importantly, people are starting to learn about the diamond trade.

While a diamond ring might symbolize love and commitment, a relationship is built on more than a dynamic arrangement of tetrahedrally-bonded carbon atoms. Had I known that people may have suffered or died in the acquisition of the diamond that my wife now wears on her hand, I would have considered alternatives. Unfortunately, when you are in love, and burdened with the weight of tradition, your focus often narrows to the exclusivity of a world- often based on greed and exploitation- that silently exists.

92. Animal cruelty big business

How much does freedom cost? The answer is that it depends. If you are a chicken, it costs about a dollar per dozen eggs. That is the difference in purchasing a dozen eggs from a factory farmer and purchasing the same dozen eggs from a free-range chicken farmer. Whereas "factory farmed" chickens often live in deplorable conditions, producers of free-range eggs are required to make open spaces available for the chickens to roam.

Unfortunately, chickens, other poultry, and fish are excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act (rabbits are considered poultry under this Act). The Act only applies to cows and pigs, although there is considerable debate how well these laws are actually enforced. Many people witnessed the inhumanity displayed at the Wiles Farm in Canton when several news channels broadcasted the story. As a result, according to the Human Farming Association (GFA), the prosecutor assigned to the case "received literally thousands of letters, faxes, emails, and phone calls from citizens all across the nation who were appalled by the horrific events at Wiles Farm, and who were asking that appropriate criminal charges be filed in this case."

The story, as too often the case, is about corporate profits and the disappearance of family farms. The result of corporate interests is harm to the environment in addition to the animal suffering. The GFA reports,

"The take-over of agriculture in the U.S. by large corporations has allowed a larger number of animals to be produced more quickly and for less money. Agribusiness has reaped great profits while keeping consumer prices low. But the real costs of factory farming - in terms of the loss of family farms, food-borne illness, damage to the environment, and animal suffering - have been tremendous."

Since poultry is not included in the Humane Slaughter Act, the mistreatment of these animals is nothing short of disturbing. Joy Mench, who runs the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California, notes that often eight chickens or more are crammed into cages measuring 20 inches wide by 19 inches deep. This many birds in one cage barely allow the chicken to stand, let alone turn around. In addition, their beaks are often removed; Mench reports,

"...the hens you'd see on most egg farms wouldn't have any beaks. The farmers cut them off, so you'd see a hen face with a stump. Farmers do that because when chickens get crowded together, they develop abnormal behavior, they can peck each other to death."

Unfortunately, good intent often goes unrealized as many "free-range" policies are so loosely defined and enforced that one can never be certain that even these chickens live as required. However, I would rather take a chance on these eggs than the alternative. The bigger picture, however, is the cruelty of factory faming, and the idea that many Americans remain oblivious to this idea.

The following quote by moral philosopher, Peter Singer, in his book "Animal Liberation" is quite powerful, which in addition to the insights of many vegitarian friends, has prompted my conversion to a vegitarian diet. Singer wrote, "Those who, by their purchases, require animals to be killed have no right to be shielded from the slaughterhouse or any other aspect of the production of the meat they buy. If it is distasteful for humans to think about, what can it be like for the animals to experience it?"

This realization applies to every aspect of human consumption that inflicts pain and suffering on animals. To ignore this reality is synonymous with actively supporting it. For years I avoided the idea of vegetarianism and justified my diet any number of ways. Surprising, I have found that it has not been that difficult without meat, as there are a lot of great meat substitutes. But most importantly, I feel a lot better about myself- even if I am a dollar poorer every time I buy a dozen eggs.