RAPAPORT... Benjamin Chavis, who accompanied hip hop mogul Russell Simmons to southern Africa, told a standing-room only press conference that the media's "disturbing portrayal" of diamonds and Africa distort reality.
Chavis, co-chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, along with Simmons and seven others arrived in New York from a nine-day fact finding mission in two of Africa's largest diamond producing nations.
"I saw the impact of diamonds -- and Africans working, learning computer skills, being trained on diamond polishing," Chavis said of his observations, and "the real story is not told" in the United States.
There was no denying that poverty is of great concern, but Chavis, Simmons, and Scott Rauch (president of the Simmons Jewelry Company owned by Simmons) discussed highlights of how the diamond economy, especially from Botswana, has benefited the local residents.
"Eight-five percent of diamond proceeds go back to that uncorrupt government," Simmons said of Botswana, where revenue from the diamond industry funds education and HIV prevention and anti-viral HIV drugs.
Simmons said --upon his arrival in New York only hours earlier-- that Nelson Mandela informed him the Blood Diamond movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly were on board with the message that diamonds play a critical role in building Africa.
"Diamonds are very important," Simmons said. "I'm not here today to defend history. The process today is transparent -- as it was to me...
"Everyone around us has an agenda," he said. "But my agenda is to boost my people -- lifting people up."
Rauch said that his biggest fear was how misinformation is affecting the industry. "It is inaccurate, songs, documentaries, movies" are telling a distorted view "of my industry -- one I love and have respect for."
"Diamonds symbolize love and special occasions over life. Diamonds and diamond jewelry symbolize healthcare, HIV (prevention/treatment,) education and empowerment across Africa," Rauch said.
Blackie Marole, managing director of Debswana, added that diamond revenue in Botswana enables the country to have an effective HIV/AIDS program for employees from the standpoint of prevention, testing, and long-term heathcare. "We are not comparable to anyone else and have shown (such a program) can be sustained."
"Every child in Botswana has free education to the age of 13," paid for with diamond revenue Marole said.
The fact-finding mission was Simmons' first trip to Africa. He observed extreme poverty in Cape Town, South Africa. "I want everyone to be like Botswana. I hope it becomes a reality," Simmons said and added that similar regulatory measures to the Kimberley Process should be placed upon oil, coltan, and gold -- all of which are natural resources in the region.
The Simmons Jewelry Company used the press event to launch its Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF,) which will raise money for the development and the empowerment of those in diamond-areas of Africa. Specifically, the DEF would support educational and skill development schools and colleges in Botswana and South Africa to start.
One way in which Simmons will raise funds is with a Green Initiative diamond jewelry line through Simmons Jewelry Company. Twenty-five percent of proceeds on Green initiative jewelry sold will fund DEF. Simmons said he was attracted to the green diamond found in Botswana, which will be the source used for the new jewelry line.
While the delegation was in southern Africa they met with Botswana's President Festus Mogae, and Mandela; they visited orphanages, HIV clinics, schools, and diamond mines.
The group observed sorting and cutting factories.
"I even saw skilled African workers in Botswana sorting, cutting, and polishing diamonds, a complete contradiction to what Americans believe about the diamond mining process," Simmons said.
"This is a shining example of how all extractive industries should operate in Africa," Simmons concluded.