Are Sapphires Really Worth It?
Are sapphires really worth it? Madagascar is now the number one exporter of sapphires in the world and on the face of it this should be good for the economy and the people living there. Digging just the tiniest bit deeper shows this is not the case and it is one of the most harmful activities carried out in Madagascar moving some already critically endangered wildlife closer to extinction.
My first time coming across sapphire mining in Madagascar was when I went to the town of Ilakaka which is about half an hour drive from Ranohira, the village which has the office for Isalo and Makay national parks in the southern part of the country. We were having issues getting a 4×4 to take us to the start of the trail to Makay so my guide, Hery, suggested a trip to Ilakaka.
The areas surrounding the town are the capital of sapphire production in Madagascar but until 1999 it only comprised a few houses and was little more than a speck on the road but the discovery of the precious stones changed all of that. The place has a distinctly wild west feel about it with people even panning dirt for sapphires in the river on the way into town. The town itself has numerous sapphire dealers with expensive looking shop fronts as well as people on the streets trying to peddle them to tourists like me. But are the sapphires really worth it?
The sapphire boom has swelled the population from the handful of inhabitants it had to close to 60,000 all looking to be part of the action and make their fortune. The only problem now is the easier to find sapphires have been taken and miners are having to dig deeper and make shafts which are difficult and dangerous to work in. The Malagasy working the mines don’t make their fortunes here and this can clearly be seen by the huts they live in compared to the grand buildings which form the higher end sapphire dealers in town.
The nature of this kind of open cast mining means the land has to be cleared of whatever vegetation that hide the sapphires and will be left to its own devices after the mining is finished. This means that sooner or later when the boom moves on from Ilakaka the land and the town around it will shrink down in population due to the lack of employment opportunities.
Alarmingly it is not difficult to find information on illegal mining in protected areas such as the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor, a protected area of 3800km2 known by its French acronym, CAZ. What is vitally important about this corridor is that it links other protected regions together so animal populations can move between between them and groups can breed with each other to keep the gene pool diverse and strong. Zahamena National Parks and Analamazaotra- Mantadia National Park are two of the protected regions linked by this corridor and home to the critically endangered Indri lemurs whose distinctive wail can be heard in the early morning as they rise and start to feed.
In 2012 sapphires were discovered in this corridor and since then illegal mining has continued to expand and now there are whole villages which have sprung up inside the forest to clear the trees and search for the stones. A National Geographic article on visiting one of these villages, Ambodipaiso, in early 2019 said “that mining has turned parts of the CAZ into scarred, treeless wastes.” A very worrying assessment from a reliable source of information and clear evidence these government protected areas are not as protected as the government says. The number of km2 of protected forest has increased vastly in the past 25 years but there is no point in having it protected if people can come in their thousands and mine illegally.
Poverty, population growth and widespread corruption are some of the problems facing conservation efforts and protection in general. Many people move between farming and other work such as mining when the opportunity presents itself as a way of providing for their families, but most of the money from mining goes to those who direct operations and are involved in smuggling the sapphires out of the country, so this creates a transient situation for the miners who have to move on somewhere else when one area has been picked clean. The role of government corruption cannot be underestimated in facilitating these mines either. It has long since been suspected that many of Madagascar’s politicians have been involved in the lucrative world of animal smuggling and it is not a wild assumption to say they are part of the sapphire mining and smuggling operations also.
The world bank estimates in 1999 that 100 million dollars worth of sapphires were smuggled out of Madagascar which is the last reliable piece of information on the value of this part of the black economy but it will have no doubt increased since then.
All of these facts, figures and reasons don’t matter much to critically endangered species like the Indri whose problem is simple, loss of habitat. The increasingly small pockets of forest left for these animals will become so fragmented if this kind of mining continues that all there will be left is tiny areas where it will be impossible for them to be truly wild. That’s the situation on some reserves where the animals have the freedom of their environment in relatively large areas but are hemmed in on all sides by farm land so breeding groups don’t have the space to spread out breed with other wild lemurs. What a huge shame that would be. Are Sapphires really worth it? I would say no.