When we were planning this trip, Jamie read that Madagascar has huge problems with sapphires. Or to be more accurate, huge problems with sapphire mining. BrilliantEarth.com explains the problems:
In Madagascar, where rich deposits of sapphires were discovered just a decade ago, a Wild West economic situation has led to dangerous working conditions and a highly unregulated industry. Allegations of child labor and abuse have also marred the gemstone trade in Madagascar. Children have been used for their small size and agility, often required to climb into small holes in extremely dangerous situations to see if gemstones are present.
Illegal mining activities are commonplace, often found in locations with poor safety standards. Injuries are common, caused by dangerous conditions including falling shards and rocks, collapsing pits, and underground fires, which can cause smoke inhalation. Little to no access to health care services exacerbates these dangerous working conditions. Most countries have yet to embrace fair labor practices in sapphire mining.
Minimal regulation in sapphire mining can also lead to spread of disease and water shortages. Clean water for drinking can be affected by sedimentation, while standing water found in open mine pits can potentially breed mosquito populations that increase malarial diseases.
Tens of thousands of miners and gem traders — virtually all male — have abandoned their villages and their families and poured into the mining areas.
In the tropical northwest corner of the country, they’ve destroyed thousands of acres of protected forest in search of gems.
Here in the southwest region, near Isalo National Park, there’s a village named Ilakaka. Before the sapphire rush, Jamie and I could have counted all its residents on our fingers and toes. Now its population is pushing 60,000. Most of those people, if they’re lucky, live in mud huts with thatched roofs, but the sapphire dealers, mostly Sri Lankan, live in “grand maisons” (big houses).
Our driver stopped his car on a bridge over the river to show us all the individuals panning for sapphires right in the middle of town. Men, women, and small children. All looking to strike it rich on sapphires.
Of course, striking it rich means something completely different here than it means at home in America. Here it might mean a well for water or sporadic electricity or even just a pair of shoes. Used shoes.
Here are some photos I grabbed off the internet that show just how primitive the sapphire mining process can be.