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The search for Madagascar’s sapphires

  • 4 July 2015
  • From the section Africa

Since the discovery of sapphires in 1998 in this town in Madagascar the population of Ilakaka has swelled. In the search for the precious blue stone, makeshift mining practices have emerged using rope pulleys and plastic bags, as the BBC’s Jason Boswell reports.

For many in Ilakaka, the search for sapphires is the only thing that puts food on the table. “If there are no sapphires we don’t have any income,” says Suzanne Fety.
After sifting the river sediment through a sieve, these sapphires appeared
Others go down the mine to find the gems using a simple pulley system which uses a rope coiled around a branch to lower the miners
But when they go down the mine, they have to be careful of the harmful gas in the sapphire pit
The miners use a manual system, constructed from plastic bags in order to flush out the gas. This team of three lost a colleague in March who succumbed to the gas while underground
The gas means miners can’t stay down in the pit for long. After 30 minutes they have to come back out to avoid a build-up of gas at the bottom of the shaft
“I’ve been buying stones for 10 years and the quantity of purple stones, the valuable ones, has definitely gone down,” says Faranirina Tandu who buys and sells stones
This dealer uses a torch to check the quality of the stones being brought to him by the various miners. There can be four intermediaries between the miners and final retailer
Sapphires do not just come in blue – these are all stones from Madagascar
Retailers in Ilakaka sell the final product, which is produced on-site. Shop owner Mohammed Kone says his stones are sold to locals and tourists alike
It is not only miners and gem buyers making money – general dealers have made a living keeping the diggers supplied with equipment
Mino says he will carry on working even though his friend died from breathing in the gas: “I want to save enough money to buy a four-wheel-drive and take it back to my village”
The promise of striking it rich has driven many to Madagascar’s shores to try their luck at sapphire mining – but very few have anything to show for their efforts here
It isn’t clear who found the first sapphire on the island – some say a French geologist, others say a local farmer. But for almost 20 years, people have been drawn to the area to find more
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