Girish Gupta

At ten years old, the Kimberley Process — the UN backed diamond certification initiative — is showing signs of deterioration. The scheme, which was designed to block so-called “conflict diamonds” from being sold on formal markets, was launched with great fanfare but was quickly censured for merely offering window dressing for a problem it could not effectively control, much less solve. In fact, dirty diamond scandals throughout Africa in recent years have not only lent credence to such claims, but have hastened the exit of NGOs from the agreement and lead some of the Kimberley Process' founding architects to renounce their creation. 

But the illicit diamond trade and the crisis of Kimberley Process legitimacy it engenders is hardly confined to sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the northern reaches of South America, the dirty diamond business is booming. Precious stones are illegally mined, smuggled, and certified in direct contravention of the Kimberley protocols with little worry of enforcement getting in the way. And while Latin America’s diamond traffickers don’t attract the same degree of attention as their West African counterparts — around which a veritable war porn industry was built in the 1990s — the industry is hardly without its violence, exploitation and impact on its physical surroundings.   

This July, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta traced the illicit network of diamond smuggling that originates in, and zigzags through, the jungles of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil before leapfrogging to markets in New York, Tel Aviv and London. He discovered a healthy trade flourishing under the noses of largely disinterested state officials. Gupta documented his findings in writing, but also with his camera. The photographs in this gallery offer an arresting glimpse into the continent’s diamond trade: its people, its product and the gorgeous, scarred landscape that at once serves as its base and cloaks the illicit activity in this often overlooked area of the world.   

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A young miner takes a break to eat at a diamond mine located in the Venezuelan jungle at Icabarú near the border with Brazil. With few other employment opportunities available, teenage miners are a common feature of South America's informal diamond trade.

 

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A miner in Icabarú shows off a recently discovered rough diamond, which will travel on to Santa Elena, the main town here on the tri-border between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.

 

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The mines scar the beautiful landscape, a view which inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novel, The Lost World.

 

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The road from Santa Elena to Icabarú, amid the distinct flat-topped tepui mountains of the region. It was atop these that Conan Doyle wrote of intrepid explorers' adventures with dinosaurs.

 

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Some gems are cut and polished here, in Santa Elena, though many are smuggled into Guyana where they are given fake Kimberley Process certificates before finding their way to trading hubs in New York, London, Tel Aviv and Antwerp. The UN-backed scheme was set up in 2003 in order to prevent the flow of conflict diamonds funding civil wars in Africa.

 

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The US government, current Chair of the Kimberley Process, has delivered a letter to Venezuelan authorities giving them an ultimatum regarding the ongoing trade on their territory. The US is unlikely to get a response. If one member is not complying, "why should anyone else bother," asks Ian Smillie, who helped found the Kimberley Process. He later resigned, citing its "failure."

 

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A diamond trader inspects a cut and polished diamond that he will sell abroad with no Kimberley Process certificate.

 

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A diamond trader inspects an already-cut diamond.

Girish Gupta is a British foreign correspondent based in Caracas, Venezuela. His work has taken him all over the region: covering Mexico’s drug wars; investigating links between Colombia’s paramilitaries and giant multinationals; following the trail of diamond smugglers through the Venezuelan, Brazilian and Guyananese Amazon; as well as deciphering Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s ups and downs during the Venezuelan election cycle. For more of his work, visit http://www.girish-gupta.com/

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