(AFP) – The dusty figure is lowered slowly into the ground like a bucket into a well, armed with just a crowbar, a shovel and an old, unreliable headlamp. In the surrounding countryside, bodies rise and sink from hundreds of holes just wide enough for a man.
Children run between the rubble and the smell of cooking wafts from the makeshift shelters where women crouch over pots. Guards armed with hunting rifles stand by, turning the settlement of Betsinefe into a threatening scene. In the world of Madagascan sapphire mining, there are few rules.
Sapphires were first discovered in Madagascar in the late 1990s, and already the Indian Ocean island is one of the world’s largest producers of the precious stones. Its 250-kilometre-long (155-mile) deposit is among the biggest in the world and has sparked a sapphire rush.
Activity at this informal, though not entirely illegal, mine in the southwest of the country was suspended recently by authorities after scuffles broke out between villagers and would-be miners flocking in from the rest of the island.
Andry Razafindrakoto, a 19-year-old student from the nearest big town of Tulear, was one of the many hoping to make their fortune.
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