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Sapphire boom propels thousands into Madagascar rainforest

The site in eastern Madagascar has sprung up amidst a boom in the area for sapphires, some nearly as large as golf balls. Photo courtesy of Rosie Perkins

  • An estimated 45,000 miners – and possibly more since mining began in October – are working the soil and in some cases tearing up trees to find valuable sapphires.
  • Concerns about environmental degradation in the protected forest have surfaced from Madagascan scientists.
  • Conditions in the makeshift camp have apparently deteriorated, with reports of violence and disease among the miners present.

Some 45,000 people have descended on an area of forest in eastern Madagascar since October in search of sapphires, which on occasion have reportedly topped out at more than 100 carats, or a bit smaller than a golf ball.

In November, the Australian news site, The Conversation, reported on a recent trip by gemologist Rosey Perkins to an upstart sapphire mine not far from the city of Ambatondrazaka. Despite its remoteness, Perkins estimates that perhaps 1,000 new miners were arriving at the makeshift settlement every day when she was there in October.

The destructive nature of the mining process, as well as the repercussions that such a sudden influx can have on the environment, has conservationists and scientists worried. In this sort of mining, miners typically pull up standing trees so they can sift the sapphires from the gravel. Often, they will also fell standing trees for firewood or charcoal and shelter.

The area around the mine site is part of the Zahamena Ankeniheny protected forest, with a nearby biodiversity and carbon project funded by the World Bank. The area is also known as the Corridor Ankeniheny Zahamena.

Maps from Global Forest Watch demonstrate the high levels of intact forest in the area and the relatively minimal losses those forests incurred between 2000 and 2013. Scientists define intact forests as those showing little impact by humans and look to these areas in the Tropics as harbors for biodiversity.

If the mining continues, the destruction of the forest could bleed into surrounding areas. And local communities, as well as the miners themselves, could see their living situations worsen.

Miners have carved out a settlement in the area of a sapphire-rich site in eastern Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Rosey Perkins

“Insecurity increases, the cost of living rises, and the education of a generation of kids may be damaged as schools close,” Tokihenintsoa Andrianjohaninarivo from Conservation International Madagascar told Julia Jones, who wrote the article for The Conversation. “Water becomes polluted as there are suddenly thousands of new people living in an area with no sanitation facilities.”

Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University in Wales, cited an unnamed source familiar with the area who said that disease and violence has already been reported as miners have swarmed into the area.

Sapphires, like many valuable minerals, are seen as a way out of poverty for Madagascans. According to the 2015 Human Development Index compiled by the UN Development Programme, Madagascar ranks 154th out of 188 countries – similar to Nigeria, Cameroon and Zimbabwe – And the per capita share of Madagascar’s gross national income is $1,328.

The area around the sapphire mine had relatively abundant intact forests in 2013, according to data from Global Forest Watch.

Sapphires, as well as rubies, have touched off exploration booms in protected areas in 2012 and 2015, according to Jones’s article.

The government of Madagascar has developed a plan to limit further damage to the forest, but acting sooner rather than later is critical, sources say.

Jones spoke with Herintsitohaina Razakamanarivo, a climate researcher at the University of Antananarivo, who expressed her concern about the lasting effects of the illegal mining.

“Much of the harm already caused by this sudden sapphire rush may well be irreversible,” Razakamanarivo said. “The miners need to leave the forest before more damage is done.”

Banner image of a sapphire in eastern Madagascar courtesy of Rosey Perkins.