AIDS Conference Highlights Impact on Metals, Diamond Miners and Peacekeepers in Africa

June 27, 2001

AIDS Conference Highlights Impact on Metals, Diamond Miners and Peacekeepers in Africa

A United Nations General Assembly Special Session on AIDS meeting this week has spurred a storm of information about the growing AIDS crisis around the world, particularly the problems of sub-Saharan Africa. In countries with large mining industries in diamonds, gold and platinum, such as South Africa and Botswana, the disease is decimating worker populations. Life expectancy in Botswana, for example, plummeted from 64 to 49 years, says U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who addressed the U.N. session.

A study released by the International Crisis Group, a private organization, says AIDS is weakening governments' abilities to maintain order in many African nations. The report even mentioned AIDS could hinder African peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone, for example, where conflict diamond abuses are greatest. Peacekeeping forces carry the virus to the nations they visit, spreading the disease even faster. In Angola alone, researchers estimate 60% of its military force is HIV-positive.

In an official declaration scheduled to be released today, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to call on all countries to develop, implement and pay for national strategies to combat the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The statement will highlight the need identified by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for a $7-10 million global yearly fund to fight AIDS and related diseases. Already, the U.S. has donated $200 million and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $100 million. Several European nations have also contributed and Annan says he hopes private and government donations will continue. About half that fund is expected to be spent in sub-Saharan Africa, where one million infected people die every three months.

Within the diamond and jewelry industries, action has already been taken. Several months ago, Debswana, the diamond mining company jointly owned by De Beers and Botswana, announced it will subsidize the cost of antiretroviral treatments for HIV-infected employees and their spouses. There are 32,000 AIDS orphans in Botswana and several compounds have sprung up to raise these children, using funds generated by diamond mining there and from De Beers' charitable foundations.

South Africa's AngloGold estimates nearly one-third of its 44,000 mineworkers are infected with HIV. The company is majority owned by mining giant Anglo-American, also part-owner of De Beers. Anglo plans a trial to offer free AIDS drugs to employees and hopes to expand the program, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A goal of the U.N. declaration is expected to cite the need for treatment of infected women to prevent transmission to their newborns. The Jewelers' Charity Fund for Children announced this month that it has earmarked $450,000 over the next two years to fund an Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundations project in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight mother-to-child transmission.

- by Peggy Jo Donahue