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The Exploitation Fueling Madagascar's Sapphire Trade

Madagascar supplies 40% of the world sapphires. Pink, yellow, blue or purple, these stones are dug up and sold illegally, with those doing the hardest job earning the least and taking the most risk.

A woman looks for sapphire in a river in Ilakaka in southwest Madagascar
A woman looks for sapphire in a river in Ilakaka in southwest Madagascar
Sébastien Hervieu

ILAKAKA — The rush first started in October. With nothing but muscle power, some 100 holes, 10 to 20 meters deep, were dug in the red, dry ground. No one really knows who found the first sapphire in the locality of Ankiliabo, a bush area in southern Madagascar. But they all came running to this new El Dorado, which is accessible with a simple zebu and cart or on foot.

Among the fortune seekers is 27-year-old Jean-Louis Damlinbesoa, who traveled 15 hours in a bush taxi to come and start digging. "I need to find 30 to 50 grams of sapphire to finally be able to build a concrete house for my wife and two children," he says. "It's a hard job, but do I have a choice?"

With temperatures reaching 37°C (98.6°F), about 1,500 people, all unlicensed, are busy exploiting the opportunity. The miners descend into a one-meter-large hole thanks to a pulley rope uncoiling around a big tree branch. "Once at the bottom, I scratch horizontally on a maximum of four meters. After that, it's too dangerous," says Christian Bienvenu, who is wearing a headlamp and has dust encrusted on his face.

His two crewmen then bring back up the clods of earth with a bucket. Every hour, several kilos are sent to the edge of the Fiherenana River. With their feet in the water, mostly women, children too, relentlessly strain the soil through a wooden sieve where, eventually, the much coveted gems and raw stones should appear. About 1.5 grams of sapphire can be found in every cubic meter of soil.

On site, life soon becomes organized. People sell food in canvas-roofed booths, while others keep an eye on their mobile phones recharging on jammed power strips. Further on, a game of chance, the wheel of fortune, is played continuously. Discoveries are still rare, so people there rely on chance to multiply the few bank notes that are painfully earned.

Sapphires, rubies, amethysts, topaz, tourmalines, emeralds, gold can all be found here. The subsoil of the Big Island is rich. But like in other African countries, it's difficult to measure because mining is essentially done illegally. Only a small part of the production of these gemstones and semiprecious stones is declared.

A study from Austalia's University of Queensland has estimated that $250 million worth of gold and gems were imported from Madagascar in 2011, mainly by the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

Up to 3,000 euros per gram

Thanks to a new mining code currently in development, the Madagascar government hopes to regulate these many artisanal operations. "The situation is no longer bearable," says Joëli Valérien Lalaharisaina, the minister of mines and oil. "To modernize the sector, we want to encourage these small miners to assemble and create their own companies or join larger companies." The task promises to be laborious. Authorities regularly launch armed operations, sometimes with brutality, to remove the illegal miners, who return to the same place a few days later.

Some of the security forces also benefit from the situation. In Ankiliabo, three soldiers with Kalashnikovs at their feet are sitting in the shade along the dusty path that leads to the quarry. One of them is cooling down with a large beer. "We have to pay them 10% of the value of our stones, or they threaten to stop guaranteeing our security," one miner says of the security forces.

Tom Cushman, of the consulting company Richfield Investor Services, says criminalizing artisanal miners isn't necessarily a feasible solution in a country where most of the population lives in extreme poverty. "Authorities are looking to recover fiscal deficiency linked to the exploitation of these mines," he says. "But after farming, this sector is the country's largest employer, with 500,000 diggers providing for their families, or nearly 2.5 million people."

The sapphire rush has been significant in the regions of Sakaraha and Ilakaka since the stone was discovered in 1998. The deposits stretch out across 120 kilometers in length and 100 kilometers in width. Half of the world's sapphires came from Madagascar in the early 2000s. The country still reportedly supplies 40% of the global production, according to the government.

"My margin went from 50% to 20% these past few years because there is more competition and fewer stones here," says Thai trader Sarid Saraphun. Night has just fallen in Ilakaka, a village turned into a Wild West town, with a population of 30,000 with the arrival of prospectors. In his shop, Saraphun examines three sapphires that a middleman just passed him through a metal gate.

He inspects them with a flashlight, runs them under water, weighs them. "Not this one. It has a stain," he says. "Not this one. It's too opaque." For the last one, he offers one million Madagascar Francs (60 euros), but the deal isn't accepted. With a firm look on his face, the dealer turns around and walks away. One gram of five-carat blue sapphire can sell for up to 3,000 euros.

A local looks for sapphire in a river in Ilakaka town Photo : He Xianfeng/Xinhua/ZUMA

Traders from Thailand and Sri Lanka control the market. "I return every three months to the country to cut and smooth my stones," explains Mohamed Mukthar, head of Suranga Gems. "I resell them on site, but also also in China, Hong Kong and Thailand. I win the loyalty of miners by giving them each week a bit of money and rice. In exchange, they must come to me first if they find a nice stone, and give it to me."

But this daily wage scenario, which doesn't exceed $2, is rare. The majority of miners are independent and only earn money if they find a stone. "Sapphires are not like math, it doesn't always add up. I sometimes don't find anything for weeks," says Jaona Fiandra, a father of eight. Eating three meals a day is a luxury not every miner can afford.

Muffled anger

In this tiered operating system, those at the bottom earn less and run the most risks. In the region, several dozen miners suffocate to death each year, particularly during the rainy season. They find themselves buried in galleries that are not propped up with wooden structures, for lack of means.

Likewise, the further up the network, the bigger the profit. "I send my salesman in quarries to buy stones on site, then I resell the large ones to Sri Lankans and Thais, and the small ones to Africans on the continent," explains Justine Solonirina Randriamampionona.

This intermediary from Madagascar hides a plastic bag containing a handful of pink, yellow, blue or even purple sapphires in her handbag. "I'm very careful because armed thieves watch us and can attack us when we go back home," she whispers.

To reduce crime in Ilakaka, authorities recently announced a new 9 p.m. curfew. The anticipated closing of bars also limits the excesses of those who would otherwise drown their misfortune in alcohol. Prostitution is another widespread vice.

In the street, there is muffled anger against the "bosses," the dozens of stone dealers accused of agreeing between each other to buy at the lowest prices. "The other day, a Sri Lankan buyer gave me a price for my sapphire, and I said no," says Manohisoa Tahiendraza. "I went to see another one next door, who offered even less. I had no choice because the first didn't want to do business anymore, but I learned that the stone was finally resold to him. The two buyers made a deal behind my back."

Some dream of regulations. Val Rahantanavalona, a political candidate in Ilakaka, suggests establishing a counter where "buyers and sellers would gather." Experts could inspect on site to ensure the sapphires are bought for a fair price, and miners would no longer be conned so easily.

In a city that lacks running water, electricity and classrooms, the amount of trader taxes, which are calculated according to their sales, would also be more regulated. "Today, authorities don't often verify," a trader says. "At worst, you hand over a few banknotes and you'll be OK, like in Madagascar ports and airports if you want to export while avoiding border control."

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