- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Festus Mogae, president of diamond-rich Botswana, hopes no one will be discouraged from giving the sparkling gems for Christmas because of a soon-to-be-released Leonardo DiCaprio movie that links them to vast human misery.

“I want people who buy diamonds to know that they are doing a great deal of good for Africa. They are supporting education, health care, clean water and orphans,” Mr. Mogae said during an interview at the Mayflower Hotel.

“People who buy diamonds should be proud. Look at the good they have done.”

Mr. Mogae, whose country produces most of the world’s gemstone diamonds, was in Washington to head off expected damage from the Warner Bros. film “Blood Diamond,” starring Mr. DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.

Set in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, it is a fictionalized account of a real-life civil war in which rebel militias seized diamond mines and sold the rough stones to buy weapons that were used in the slaughter, rape and mutilation of thousands of innocents.

Just the thought of a film linking diamonds with child soldiers, severed limbs, rape and mass killings is a marketing nightmare for an industry that has long worked to associate the gems with love.

Mr. Mogae, an Oxford-educated development economist before he was elected president in 1998, said he has not seen the film. Those who have seen it say it portrays a corrupt and cynical industry that cares little for the havoc the stones can finance.

The head of De Beers, Jonathan Oppenheimer, has been quoted as saying the Dec. 15 release date of “Blood Diamond” could be devastating for holiday sales.

“The world and Botswana condemns and regrets events that took place years ago in Sierra Leone, but I fear that people may not appreciate that this is a fictionalized version of events,” Mr. Mogae said. He noted that similar atrocities have occurred in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Darfur and southern Sudan, where diamonds played no role.

Botswana is best known to Americans through the 1980 film”The Gods Must Be Crazy,” about a Bushman in the Kalahari desert, and the best-selling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels. It is a landlocked nation about the size of Texas, situated just above South Africa.

Wealth of services

At independence in 1966, Botswana was ranked one of the world’s poorest nations. A year later, De Beers, the world’s largest diamond company based in South Africa, discovered diamonds in Botswana, and everything changed.

Since independence, Mr. Mogae said, per capita income has risen from $60 to $80 to $4,800 a year, 7,000 miles of roads have been paved and the literacy rate has expanded from 7 percent to near 90 percent.

“We are able to provide free education to all, and near universal health services. Even in the most remote parts of the country, no one is more than 10 miles from a health center. And we are fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” he said, giving free anti-retroviral drugs to those in need, providing food, clothing and schooling to about 60,000 AIDS orphans, and testing pregnant mothers to limit transmission of the disease.

Botswana’s HIV program, an expensive one initiated by Mr. Mogae, is considered a model for the rest of Africa.

“American consumers should look at the good we have done and understand the role that is played by diamonds,” he said.

Mr. Mogae said that 8,000 Botswana citizens are employed by Debswana Diamond Co., a 50/50 joint venture between the government of Botswana and De Beers. Forty-seven percent of his government’s budget and 70 percent of Botswana’s export revenues come from diamonds.

Mr. Mogae acknowledged that although diamonds have fueled his nation’s development, they also have funded atrocities in other parts of Africa. In 1998, the United Nations banned the import of Angolan diamonds that had not been certified because of their role in financing the civil war there.

By 2000, this led to the creation of the Kimberly Process to try to certify a gem’s origin and prevent the sale of “conflict diamonds.” Although the process is not perfect, it has made it much more difficult to sneak “blood diamonds” into the commercial market. It is estimated that less than 4 percent of diamonds on the market today are conflict diamonds.

Bushmen complaint

Mr. Mogae faces publicity headaches apart from the DiCaprio film. Survival International, a London-based human rights organization, took out a full-page advertisement in the entertainment trade publication Variety last month on behalf of a group of Kalahari Bushmen, seeking Mr. DiCaprio’s help in a different diamond-related complaint against the Botswanan government. The lawsuit claimed that the indigenous Bushmen were evicted from their home in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve because the national diamond company was prospecting in their ancestral homeland.

“Friends have told us that you are in a film, ‘The Blood Diamond,’ which shows how badly diamonds can hurt. We know this. When we were chased off our land, officials told us it was because of the diamond finds,” said the Bushmen’s letter, which appeared in Variety.

Mr. Mogae has invited Survival International, Mr. DiCaprio and any other interested Hollywood celebrities to come to the Kalahari and see for themselves.

“There is no mining of diamonds in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve,” he said. The Bushmen “were moved out of a national game park. They were not moved forcefully. They were moved over a period of 10 years and they were compensated. Out of 1,700 who were moved, about 200 are taking us to court so they can go back and hunt. They want to use horses and guns and dogs in a game park. It is a park.”

He said the Bushmen also benefit from development and urged Americans to buy diamonds.

“We are an open, transparent democracy. Diamonds played a role in that. Come and see. … People should know that when they are buying diamonds, they are helping Africa fight poverty and disease,” he added.

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