The Exploitation Fueling Madagascar’​s Sapphire Trade (World Crunch.com/Le Monde – February 9, 2016)

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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.

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