Monday, December 5, 2011

Gorillaland: A Jungle Odyssey (excerpt #3)

Mordechai Levin was chairing the conference, and Rich Katz was seated five places down from Natalie Cox on the conference panel, which was situated on a raised platform at the front of the Hilton’s Mercury Ballroom. Rich was wearing a dark yarmulke on his shiny bald head under the bright lights. He adjusted the microphone, smoothed his goatee, and tilted his head so he could regard her as he spoke. “All I’m saying, Miss Cox, is that we need to also look at the good things the industry is doing in Africa, that’s all. It’s not all doom and gloom. The real problem in places like the Congo and Angola is not conflict diamonds, but a lack of economic stability and investment.”
Natalie was not going to let him get away with being so patronising. She was on a roll. The screening of Blood On Your High Street, with its surprising revelations about unlawful activity in the diamond trade, had enthralled the morning session and now she was confronting the guilty culprits. “That may be so, Mr Katz, but you certainly have a lot to answer for regarding the safety conditions of the mines in which you operate.”
“Oh that’s ridiculous,” said Rich. “So, now you’re attacking the industry because, what? Because of inadequate safety standards, in Africa? What next? Do we ban diamonds because jewellery is somehow degrading to women?” There was a murmur of laughter in the room.
“What about the fact that our undercover operatives could pawn smuggled diamonds to your dealers on 47th Street, without even the mention of certificates or proof of provenance?” asked Natalie with a confidence that belied her lack of experience.
“Those aren’t my dealers in your infomercial, Miss Cox,” said Rich, looking around the vast, ornate ballroom for more support among his fellow jewellers and diamond traders. “MultiGems hasn’t had a retail outlet on 47th Street since 1997.”
Another of the panel spoke, a lawyer with the Kimberly Process, who addressed Natalie over her reading glasses: “As appalled as we all are by the subject of your documentary, Miss Cox, selling diamonds to dealers in New York City, whatever their provenance, does not actually contravene any US laws. The United States Clean Diamonds Act applies only to the import and export of diamonds. Once they’re in the country they’re no longer illegitimate.”
“Are you kidding?” demanded Natalie. “Isn't that the kind of ridiculous loophole the Kimberly Process was meant to close?”
“Excuse me,” the woman retorted, “the Kimberly Process never had a remit for law enforcement. You should know that. However, the exchange of information between organisations is an integral part of making it work. Why won’t your organisation furnish us with the names of the people in your film?”
“That’s impossible,” Natalie replied. “It would put the lives of our operatives in danger.” In any case, she did not know their names. That is to say, her boss had not given her that information; there was too much at stake. She ignored the woman from the Kimberly Process, and kept up the pressure on Rich Katz. “I put it to you, Mr Katz, that companies like MultiGems should be prohibited from trading because you exploit poor miners. Your industry,” she said, turning sympathetically towards the audience, “should not be tolerating anything but ethically mined diamonds, and you should be censuring Mr Katz and his ilk for this sort of bad behaviour. If you do not, the international community will. It is within the power of the United Nations Investigation into the Illegal Exploitation of Resources to boycott companies like MultiGems.”
Rich stood up, causing the room to quiet down again. “Ms Cox, we work in an extraordinary industry. At one end of the supply chain is a piece of diamond jewellery that symbolises a deep emotional bond for our customers and at the other end are many thousands of poor Africans who rely on this industry for their livelihood. You talk of boycotts, campaigns and UN embargoes like you have a right to play God. To whom do you account, missus?” He sat down again triumphantly, to resounding applause.
“WorldWatch’s annual accounts...WorldWatch’s annual accounts are on the record,” retorted Natalie, “which is more than we can say for MultiGems, who don’t even publish accounts.”
“Fucking bitch!” said Rich, loudly enough for it to get picked up by his microphone and silence the room. Someone handed Mordechai a note and after reading it he spoke calmly over the public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is very nearly time for our coffee break, but I would like to ask everyone to just hang on for a moment and remain seated. I have been informed that a number of protesters have entered the hotel lobby and the police are having difficulty holding them back. So, for the time being, please remain in your seats.” Suddenly the door burst open, and several protesters wielding placards pushed their way into the Mercury Ballroom.
“African Solidarity rejects the notion,” shouted a woman with a megaphone, struggling to free herself from a security guard’s bear hug, “African Solidarity rejects the notion that there can be such a thing as conflict-free diamonds. All diamonds are blood diamonds, mired in the conflict of slavery and colonialism.”
“Oh, hell,” cried Natalie. “Look, I haven’t finished yet...”
“Please remain seated, everyone,” cried Mordechai over the din, “everything’s under control.”

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