Andilamena is situated about six hours in a taxi-brousse from Ambatondrazaka, if the roads are dry. When I arrived in town the faded dominance of mining was immediately obvious, as the first building I saw was a gemstone shop, closed. The main road was busy, with lots of little shops selling everything from cheap electronics to groceries and several little restaurants (“gargoty” in Malagasy) abuzz with life.

Every morning the central crossroad sports a vegetable market. Most of the local farmers come to sell their produce and they set up their stands in front of closed gem shops. Every second building is a closed gem shop. Only a few small stalls were still active in the side streets, and they were tended by Malagasy people. Foreigners tend to leave town during the recessions.

The town also hosts offices of several ministries, including the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology, and Forests. At the back of one of the official buildings was a small office occupied by Dalal, a nice, easy-going man in his late fifties. (Most sources were comfortable giving me their first names only, so I have omitted surnames throughout the story.)

Dalal was the president of an association of mineworkers in informal, or artisanal, mines that goes by the Malagasy initials H.MPA.VATO.A. Its purpose is to educate miners and occasionally mediate conflicts between them and their vazaha (“white foreigner” in Malagasy) bosses.

Dalal explained the area’s two kinds of mining to me. 
Mines for precious stones, such as rubies or sapphires, are usually illegal. There is no real management. Each miner is on his own, although some are sponsored by richer people. Everyone tries to sell their finds to resellers. For the large, expensive stones most of the resellers are foreigners, mainly from Sri-Lanka, Thailand, or Russia. For the less impressive stones Malagasy resellers sometimes act as intermediaries.

Locals call the second type of mining “formal” or “industrial.” These are open quarries for semiprecious stones such as quartz or tourmaline. They are managed by a boss, often Malagasy, who leases the land and pays taxes to the government.

 Dalal, president of an association of mineworkers in informal mines, in Andilamena. Photo by Arnaud De Grave / Agence Le Pictorium.
Dalal, president of an association of mineworkers in informal mines, in Andilamena. Photo by Arnaud De Grave / Agence Le Pictorium.

Dalal recalled Andilamena’s recent mining cycles. In 2002 there was ruby. In 2005 sapphire. At the moment the mining sector around the town was in recession.

He deplored the illegality and the side effects of mining booms: prostitution, drunkenness, child labor. But he said the town’s standard of living had nevertheless increased. In 2005 there were more than 10,000 bicycles in town, up from fewer than 60 in 2002, he said, and access to electricity multiplied by 100. He also reported that security is better during the good times. When the mines close, the violent theft of zebus resumes.

Gemstone mining

The gem mining sites were quite remote from Andilamena. To access the closest informal mine site two fixers and I had to take taxi-motos for an hour and then walk for three hours. The walk took us through swathes of “tavy,” Madagascar’s traditional slash-and-burn technique to quickly clear large portions of forest for agriculture. Trips to the mines can take from a few hours to several days.

When I arrived at the site it seemed entirely abandoned. However, a small community of 18 people continues to exploit the site and live there. They are all that remains of the 10,000-plus people who worked the area at its peak of activity during a ruby rush in 2002. The mine finally crashed in 2006. The masses left but a few people stayed on. In 2011 they made the encampment and what was left of the mine official, baptizing it Andasiakondro. The name means, literally, Camping Banana. The only explanation for it I could get out of the residents was a lot of laughter and giggling.

Andasiakondro’s residents practice a typical method of informal gem mining. They cut blocks of earth out of the hills with metal poles or sharpened sticks, sort them, and then immerse them in a nearby stream to separate stones from the clay or other type of soil using a sieve. The miners wash and scrutinize the pebbles, hoping to discover an interesting stone.

The digs end up becoming holes and then tunnels, sometimes very deep, even reaching the aquifer. All the loose soil enters the water, turning streams into muddy soups. Locals’ hygiene and the biodiversity that depends on the streams suffer. In Andasiakondro, residents have separated the river into two branches in order to keep the water they use for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes and dishes clean.

The environmental destruction that happened during the boom times was still quite visible. Miners cut timber to build accommodations and water pipes. They cleared forest using tavy and planted crops. Several acres of forest around Andasiakondro had been lost and what remained was clearly degraded. The water in the stream running through the site was muddy and the banks were disrupted or eroded away in many places. A little downstream was an abandoned digging site where some tunnels had collapsed and were now filled with water, thereby unusable. Someone had tried to stabilize the edges of the mining hole with wooden stakes, with little success.

People I interviewed about the major risks of mining told me that after hole collapses, landslides, and falling trees, the living conditions and terrible hygiene resulting from the congregation of thousands of people are the main causes of disease and sometimes death. Actual figures are hard to come by, maybe impossible, as this activity is illegal and the workers are largely immigrants from other regions. One of the main problems with informal mining is that people move to the mine and stay there for weeks at a time.

That is the main reason why most of the people I interviewed chose not to go to the new mine in Didy, despite its fame and the stories about large stone findings. One of the miners showed me pictures of big sapphires on his smartphone, sent by a friend in Didy.

Most gems (rough or cut) are exported to Southeast Asia, India, and West Africa. Solid production figures are largely elusive, but some snapshots can offer a general idea of the scale of Madagascar’s gem industry. In 2013 artisanal miners produced 2,600 kilograms (2.8 tons) of sapphires, 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of rubies, and 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of emeralds, among other gemstones, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s most recent mineral report for Madagascar [pdf]. And a 2015 working paper by the World Bank states that foreign countries imported about $250 million worth of gold and precious and semiprecious stones from the country. Some 500,000 people work in artisanal mines, according to that document and others, out of a population of 24.4 million. However, figures such as these are difficult to trust given the extent of informal mining and its significant economic impact.

Quartz mining

About an hour’s walk from Andilamena is a formal quarry of pink and grey quartz that locals call Anosipataka or L’île Debout (which means “the standing island”). A group of women walking back from Andilamena after selling their produce at the market led me there. The quarry is situated in a flat plain in between hills. It looked from afar like a field full of white rocks. Five men were idling there when I arrived.

As Dalal explained, it is legal to work here. The average salary is 1 million Malagasy francs per month, about 200,000 ariary or $68. (People in the countryside often speak in terms of Malagasy francs even though the currency changed to ariary in 2003.) But it is a stable income, not one dependent on the luck of finding a stone, as in the gem mines.

The work is no less dangerous and the complaints are the same: landslides, rock falls, and such. The main difference is that miners do not live on the site but in the city, so the diseases due to lack of hygiene, crowding, lack of food, and other difficulties of the illegal mines are absent.

I interviewed Razifa, a man of 40 who worked at the quarry. Originally from Tamatave he moved to Andilamena 13 years ago. But as he was not a local he was unable to obtain land for farming so he became a mason and started to work here in the quartz quarry. He told me about work at the quarry: miners pry the blocks from the ground and break them into transportable pieces, which they pile on the side of the road for drivers to collect and bring into town in zebu carts. They break the large blocks with homemade sledgehammers and Razifa often cut his hands because the pieces of quartz have sharp edges. In some parts of the quarry landslides and water spurts were common, as at the precious stone mine I had visited a few days earlier.

The eldest of Razifa’s four children, a boy of about 10, was also at work and I watched him help his father clear the soil away from a large piece of quartz lodged in the ground. He was not taking advantage of a day off from school but was out of it completely, descholarized. This is one of the risks Dalal mentioned.

In that particular place the impact on the landscape appeared to be fairly small. Razifa told me that once a site is retired as a quartz quarry it is sometimes recycled as an agricultural field. Sometimes it just stays like it was, a field of stones and pits. Another man working there named Edmond, a native of Andilamena, complained that the quarries really destroy the landscape. But, he said, one needs to make money.

Locals’ perspectives

I spoke with several inhabitants of Andilamena, trying to survive, waiting for the next rush. For most of them, mining had been positive even though they agreed that the risks are high and the impact on the environment is too great. They did not really feel they had a choice. Here are some of their stories.

Saholy, age 40, told me she had been a stone dealer since 2000. Before that she was a seamstress. She said she cannot go back to sewing because she is too old now and cannot see very well anymore. She did not go to the mine in Didy because the required investment was too high; one needed a working fund of 3 million francs (about $200), more than five times what she had. She was waiting for the local market to resume. “These are cycles,” she said.

Madame Esther, age 50, had owned a gargoty since 2001. Her son came to Andilamena with the whole family to work in the ruby mine that had just opened. He never found a big stone, but little by little the family managed to accumulate enough money to invest. That was when Madame Esther opened her restaurant. She also rented a few houses and complained of the Sri Lankan gem buyers who she said do not pay the rent and disappear overnight leaving debts behind.

One evening, Madame Esther showed me a recent photo of her son, who had gone to the mine in Didy and found enough stones to buy a 4×4. The picture was taken at the “splashing” of the vehicle, which can be anything from a religious ceremony, a way to worship an ancestor, or just a little ritual to wish the owner good luck. After 15 years of work, he finally won big time. She said her shop does well and she was even able to adopt a young orphan and take care of him with her husband.

Pierre was 34 years old. He became a miner just after school. He never found a big stone though, and was now helping his wife who works for the solar company HERi Madagascar, managing one of its solar electricity kiosks. These kiosks bloomed in many of the villages I visited around Lake Alaotra and in other parts of Madagascar. People can rent lamps by the night for 150 ariary ($0.05), charged by the solar panels installed on the kiosks’ roofs.

Pierre said he continues working in the mines from time to time, not looking for big gains, just enough to feed his family. He refused to go to Didy. “All the inhabitant of Madagascar are already there! And besides, it doesn’t really matter where you do it, it’s a matter of pure luck,” he said.

Rafalimanana, age 66, had worked in many mines throughout his life. Since 2016 he had been working as a peddler selling banana donuts. (They were delicious.) He said he earns about 1 million francs (200,000 ariary or $65) per month.

Pierrot, age 32, used to be a farmer and cattle herder. He wanted to get rich and tried his luck at mining when he heard about one of the ruby booms. He won a bit but told me that scams ruined him. He went to the new Didy mine but he said the conditions were too difficult and dangerous for him because he has children. So he returned to Andilamena where his family is. He had no work when I spoke to him. But he said he did not feel unhappy because in this region there are more opportunities, such as land to buy, than in Antananarivo, where he originally comes from.

Doda, age 40, owned a sawmill. He had worked in many mines but at the time of my visit he had too many orders and preferred to focus on his business. He employed three to four people, including his brother. For him, going mining meant neglecting his business and family. But now that he had a good situation he could sponsor others, giving them money so they could go to the mines. He showed me a photograph that he kept as a memory of his time at a mine near Moramanga, a city about 270 kilometers (168 miles) south of Andilamena within Alaotra-Mangoro.

These were the relatively prosperous among the people I met in Andilamena. Others were less fortunate.

For instance Voja, age 23, used to work in rice fields but began mining around Andilamena in 2015 because there was less and less work in the rice fields and it was only seasonal. He said he gained nothing from the mines and was now poorer than before. So he started washing taxi-brousses, the ubiquitous rural transport vans. His salary allowed him to survive but not to leave Andilamena. He told me he felt stuck, trapped.

In Behorefo, a small village on the way from Andilamena to Camping Banana, I met Mama Tsiri, age 31, owner of a gargoty. She recalled that at the peak of the mining activity, the village had four restaurants and two hotels and the taxi-brousse came all the way there. Now hers was the only restaurant and the road had become so degraded than only taxi-motos could travel it. She said she hoped the mining would resume soon.

Mama Tsiri had spent time mining herself just after school, at age 18. It was a quick way to make a good amount of cash. However, she said she got sick: “une grosse fatigue” (“a huge tiredness,” which is how Malagasies describe most unknown sickness) made her stop mining and she had to be evacuated from the mining site and brought back to Behorefo. Then she settled down, got married, and had her first child. And there she remained, waiting for the gems to return.

Foreigners’ views

Another side of this story is that of the foreign gem resellers. I met a group of people from Sri Lanka in Andilamena who told me they believed mining can only be positive because it brings business and development, making people happy and empowered. Besides, according to them, the stones are there so why not use them to help develop the country? “Now the Malagasy resellers are doing better than we do!” one of them told me.

They did not believe there was any risk for the workers or for the environment. To back up their position they showed me the video from Didy on a smartphone — even though it was aimed at showing the threats to the local ecosystem. For this group, a mine never really dies; instead it brings development to local towns where the businesses continue even after the last stones are pulled from the earth and the miners depart.

Shortly before leaving Andilamena I heard about a new road being built by some Russians. I took a taxi-moto and went to investigate. Indeed, I found crews upgrading, or in some places building, a 40-kilometer (25-mile) stretch of road between Andilamena and an old ruby mine. Three construction machines were racing to complete the work before the beginning of the heavy rains expected toward the end of the year.
 The company handling the work planned to exploit the old mine.

The Russian overseer told me the company has all the permits for the project. He thought that, in any case, improving roads could only benefit local people. But he said he was frightened by the bush fires he had been seeing the whole week he had been there. I guessed it was tavy. That is one of the unintended consequences of mining, especially if roads are built. It promotes deforestation and loss of biodiversity by bringing more people into places that were previously very remote.

NGOs focus on the destruction of nature around the mines and the threats to human lives. But what I saw is a more pervasive and enduring impact on people’s lives. The lasting environmental destruction stems from new or improved access to remote areas, concentration of the human population, and changes in the local economy, not to mention direct deforestation and pollution of land and water.

However, mining presents yet another grey situation, not black or white. The way miners (or former miners) and the population at large perceive mining varies with their proximity to the mining sites and how the mines affect their livelihoods. I saw this myself and it was also neatly demonstrated by a study published in the journal Madagascar Conservation and Development last year. A farmer might bemoan the land degradation and pollution resulting from a mine, whereas a gargoty owner might embrace the resulting increase in business.

Mining as a way of life in Madagascar is a story about choice or, more often, the lack thereof, about opportunities or the lack thereof. But it is necessary to look around and see beyond the mining rush itself. There are few signs that mining activities will become better integrated into local Malagasy economies any time soon, or that incursions into protected areas can be prevented when a new rush pops up. And while the concern about the environment that I heard in my conversations was genuine, finding a way to make a living and keeping one’s family fed were clearly the more pressing struggles for the Malagasies I spoke with. There is no patch that can fix the problems mining creates in Madagascar, only a relief from poverty seems likely to bring significant change.

Arnaud De Grave is a photoreporter based in France. He is represented by the agency Le Pictorium and specializes in long multidisciplinary projects with a strong social aspect. He is grateful to the AlaReLa project and the fixers who made this journey possible. You can find his work at and

Yager, T.R. (2016). 2013 Minerals Yearbook: Madagascar. Washington, D.C: United States Geological Survey.

Faure, M., Rakotomalala, O., Pelon, R. (2015). Economic contributions from industrial mining in Madagascar: research summary. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.

Stoudmann, N., Garcia, C., Randriamalala, I.H., Rakotomalala, V.A.G., Ramamonjisoa, B. (2016). Two sides to every coin: farmers’ perceptions of mining in the Maningory watershed, Madagascar. Madagascar Conservation & Development 11(2):91–95.

A few miners continue to work an old mine called Andasiakondro, where a ruby rush drew some 10,000 people in 2002.
A few miners continue to work an old mine called Andasiakondro, where a ruby rush drew some 10,000 people in 2002.

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