The Scramble for Sapphires in Madagascar’s Protected Rainforest

Exhausted and soaked, our packs were heavy on our backs. An 18-hour hike through pristine rainforest — picking our way along winding, slippery, redclay muck trails, fording a dozen or more rivers and creeks, climbing and descending more than two miles in total — had us nearing our destination, but we weren’t sure what we’d find.

As we crested the final 500-foot climb, we saw a scene of utter devastation, like Saruman’s army toiling underground in The Lord of the Rings. Below us spread a maze of muddy trails, honeycombed with deep holes, pits, and puddles, as far as the eye could see. The brown morass was buzzing with human activity, and uptempo African pop music played on an unseen speaker. A makeshift village covered in blue plastic roofs ran along the fringes of the quarry, and the slope bordering the descent trail was covered with a stubble of charred tree trunks.

We had arrived at the sapphire mine.

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Antananarivo Quarry and the improvised village that skirts it.

More than half of the world’s sapphires come from Madagascar, though they are not always marketed as such. Experienced traders from Sri Lanka and other known sapphire sources often flock to Madagascar to take advantage of less savvy artisanal miners in a market that is largely, if not completely, unregulated.

In late 2016, media reports began surfacing of the latest sapphire rush — apparently in the heart of one of Madagascar’s largest remaining rainforests. Up to ten thousand hopeful miners were looking to improve their fortunes deep in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor, part of the thin ribbon of protected forest stretching along the eastern slopes of Madagascar’s central highlands.

Madagascar is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots; an estimated 80% of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on Earth. The survival of much of its wildlife — including its iconic 100-plus species of lemurs — depends on maintaining the contiguity of the island’s remaining forests, so migration and interbreeding can continue unimpeded. The flooding of thousands of hopeful miners into this critical rainforest meant that lemurs and other unique species would not only lose habitat, but would also likely become a source of food.

Getting There; or the Road Less Traveled

Pushing through the thick reeds at the edge of a remote village, we must have startled the young woman spreading wet clothes to dry on the roof of her thatched hut. Malagasy photographer Safidy Andranantenaina and I had spent the better part of a day being jostled in the back of a 4x4 before setting out on our long hike, and we were muddy, wet and weary. As outsiders, we’d be suspected of carrying cash on the way in or sapphires on the way out, so we also brought along a bodyguard.

We had initially planned to take the more direct route from Antsevabe, but had been refused entry by Ministry of Environment officials, who insisted that access to the mines was restricted to “outsiders.” For a bribe, they’d let us through, but instead we concocted a story about needing to visit someone in the village of Didy, farther south, and they grudgingly waved us on.

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Making our beds on the pews of a village church

Reaching Didy after dark, we spent the night on rickety pews in a dirt-floor church. At dawn, our driver wished us well and we set out on a hike that would take a day and a half to complete. We gave up quickly trying to keep dry, and sometimes crawled on all fours to avoid sliding down slick clay hillsides. But this was wild Madagascar, and we marveled at the colorful frogs and chameleons along the way, the three-foot earthworms that wriggled in the mud, and on several occasions heard the distant and distinctive call of the Indri, Madagascar’s largest lemur.

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Routes to and from sapphire mines. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

“Artisanal Mining:” a Euphemism for “Unregulated Chaos”?

After our long hike, we were a bit worried about being turned away as we gingerly picked our way down the muddy trail into Antananarivo Quarry. Stepping over plastic trash and empty water bottles, we approached the first two huts, where we were greeted by groggy gendarmes. Hoping to bluff our way past them, we offered them a soda or beer from the adjacent stall, and some small talk.

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Approaching the quarry. Ttwo gendarme huts guard the entry.

Gendarmes serve as the police in the many remote and rural areas of Madagascar. These two gendarmes guarding the entry to the mine had been sent from the district capital Ambatondrazaka when the mining boom started. Their instructions were to maintain order — essentially to prevent violence between the miners — and they served on a monthly rotation with two other gendarmes. They admitted that none of the miners were licensed and said “the government doesn’t care about anything that happens here,” complaining about the lack of support. We learned later that the gendarmes profited from the government’s neglect by charging miners an “entry tax” of either two cups of rice, or 5,000 ariary ($1.50). Apparently the sodas we had bought them sufficed, and we were welcomed in the mining area to have a look around.

We began navigating a chaotic maze of pathways lined by makeshift houses and shops constructed from saplings and covered with blue plastic sheeting. The steady rain made everything sloppy and slippery, but the young men making their way in all directions, often covered in mud and some wearing converted rice sacks with head and arm holes, didn’t seem to mind.

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Despite the difficult trail, a steady stream of goods from Antsevabe supplied the mine’s bustling micro-economy. Balancing baskets on their heads, driving sheep and goats over the hills and valleys, or carrying bamboo poles with goods suspended from both ends, entrepreneurs brought in live chickens, jugs of diesel — even ice cream in styrofoam coolers. At least 50 shops selling beer, soda, fresh fry bread, cigarettes, shoes, clothing and freshly butchered meat — mostly run by young women — supported the community of roughly 2,000.

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Sixteen bottles of beer, carried for 12 hours, can generate a profit of $9.20 if he returns the empties. This is well over the average daily salary in most of Madagascar.

In addition, a number of informal pharmacies, selling clearly counterfeit ibuprofen, amoxicillin, antihistamines and other medications, explained the empty blister packs we had seen on the trail. Antananarivo Quarry also had a church that could seat 150, a phone charging service, a small outdoor gym with functional parallel bars and makeshift weights. Less surprising was the presence of prostitutes, but for the otherwise inclined there was also a movie theater showing two films per night.

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Clockwise, from top left: “jelly sandals” are practical here in the mud; counterfeit medications can be found everywhere; entrepreneurs run a phone charging station and video rental; a makeshift theatre shows two movies per night. Top photos courtesy of Safidy Andranantenaina; bottom photos by the author.

Beyond the huts, in and along the floor of the valley, groups of people — mostly young men — were toiling in the mud. Their work involved digging vertical pits several meters deep, and someone would toss buckets of mud from the bottom to others waiting above. Then the soil would be “washed” in large sieves made from sheet metal with holes punched into it, framed by wood. The river had been dammed and diverted into multiple muddy streams, and some miners used gas-powered water pumps to accelerate the sifting process.

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Left: husband and wife mining. Right: using a water pump to “wash” and sift through soil.
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The mining activity appeared disorganized and chaotic, and it was clear that the pits occasionally collapsed in the constant rain. The area was devoid of all greenery, except for one lone, tall tree that functioned as a lucky totem for the miners — it was cloaked in colorful blankets and its base was littered with bottles and small change that had been given as offerings.

On Thursday, the Eagle Flies

Having arrived on a Wednesday, we were told that according to local fady, or taboo, digging in the Earth was strictly forbidden on Thursdays. This rule, oddly, was strictly observed. Thus, on Thursday, many of the miners were drunk or high, while others caught up on laundry or other tasks. We recognized the marijuana dealers by their “Miami Vice” clothing styles, and we steered clear of the gem buyers that appeared that day — thuggish types wearing designer tracksuits, their hands and wrists heavy with shiny rings and watches.

We learned from the miners that while sapphire finds were infrequent, one good stone could fetch a price that would make the effort worthwhile. One miner, Mohammad, who had come from northern Madagascar with a group of friends who had long given up and left, was still hopeful. Another miner explained that many of the smaller groups had financial sponsors who provided food and basic supplies but would be given a predetermined cut of any sapphire find.

All regions of Madagascar were represented at the camp, though many had previously worked the sapphire mines in Ilakaka — in the deep south of the country. Most admitted the mine, along with the neighboring Milliard (“billion”) Quarry, had likely run its course, and they were thinking of moving on soon.

Deep in the Rainforest, a Village Under Siege

Rather than take our chances with the miners, we spent nights in Bemainty, the lone village in this remote area of Madagascar, a few miles west of Antananarivo Quarry. The young woman we had startled when we emerged from the reeds introduced us to the village president — the patriarch of the village and the official link to the government — to whom we would have to explain our presence and negotiate a place to stay.

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Bemainty Village

The elderly village president told us Bemainty had once consisted of 120 families, but since the arrival of the miners, that number had dropped to just 30. The miners had been looking for gold, but found sapphires instead. Once word of the new find spread, thousands of miners followed. Initially, the villagers had tried to make the best of their situation by selling them food, even as they peppered the village’s ancestral rice fields with boreholes searching for the elusive blue stones.

Within months of the initial rush, bandits, assuming villagers were flush with freshly-mined sapphires, had attacked Bemainty, stolen everything of value, and killed its traditional chief. When the government did not respond to requests for assistance, most villagers, including the sole schoolteacher, fled into the surrounding rainforest. Five months later, frustrated miners who were desperate for funds attacked the village again. The sapphires had brought the village nothing but hardship; its remaining rice paddies were unusable and its school-aged children had nowhere to learn. We slept on the dirt floor of the president’s family room for 5,000 ariary per night, which included hot coffee every morning, sweetened with sugar cane juice.

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Left: a family in Bemainty. Right: the village president poses for a portrait in his doorway. Right photo by Safidy Andrianantenaina.

We left him with bags of candy, pencils, and paper, and he assigned a young man to guide us out. After a tour of the village, the guide escorted us to a new mine that had appeared just a week earlier, on the route to Antsevabe. As we said our goodbyes, the aging patriarch asked if there was any way we would be able to provide the village a soccer ball, and we promised we’d do our best.

Yet Another Quarry: What a Difference a Week Can Make

Thirty minutes northwest of Bemainty, we came upon a new quarry, which appeared to be an older mine that was rediscovered. Along the mile-long approach to the mine were countless deep holes, many overgrown and hidden with vegetation, on both sides of the path, along with a dozen abandoned homes.

The active mining area covered a 400-by-800 meter swath of mud, in addition to a 200-meter band of forest that had been clear-cut, and efforts appeared well underway to enlarge that area. Surrounded by activity, we saw more than 8,000 people cutting down trees, digging deep pits the mud, and building huts. As we left for Antsevabe, we sent a drone over the area to capture the extent of environmental damage that had occured in just one week.

We walked mostly in silence the rest of the day, following our barefoot guide and passing a constant stream of people carrying goods toward the mines. We heard no more lemurs, and we wondered about the future of Madagascar’s remaining rainforests and wildlife, given the Malagasy government’s minimal effort to regulate artisanal mining of various stones and minerals. We reached Antsevabe by nightfall. The next morning, our driver was waiting for us just outside of town. I realized my message had been passed in time when he beckoned and held a shopping bag out the window. We said our goodbyes, and our guide headed home to Bemainty, proudly carrying a new soccer ball with a pump for his village.

Film photographer, documentary filmmaker, aspiring journalist.

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