Driving through the middle of nowhere you come upon a town where streets are lined with shacks selling utensils from shovels to strainers as well as provisions for miners. Welcome to Ilakaka. A sapphire boom town which erupted astride the RN7 after the discovery of one of the world’s largest known sapphire deposits in 1998. The fever has overrun the country and every day hundreds of people flow in hoping to get lucky. The word spread fast and international investors and gem dealers also got attracted.
Our first stop is down by the river, where entire families filter the river for precious stones. Everybody stares at us as we get out of the car. Is it just suspiciousness or do they hope we are the big buyers from the west? After a short moment we notice that mistrust belongs to this area as does the pope belong to Rome.
Why trust the person next to you, the person you’re working with or your closest friend when all are seeking for the same colourful stones? We feel like being part of the film ‘Blood Diamond’ but without Leonardo DiCaprio who must have just run off with the biggest gemstone before we arrived. As in most places in Madagascar you have to be accompanied by a guide. This time we are grateful to be with Bosco just for our own safety.
Our second stop is at one of the many mines. After driving for about 15 minutes inland we have to travel onwards by foot. A sandy path takes us around big holes resulting from non successful digging attempts, through swampland and across a river before leading us to a mountain of sand. Now this is getting even more exciting. We scramble up and looking down into a sapphire mine. The hole is empty and nobody is digging. It’s lunchtime. Well that’s good planning.
Luckily we find a few of the diggers under a tree and in exchange for a few cigarettes that our guide brought we are allowed to go down and try our luck. Two boys come running down as well and show us around. Lucky us, how else would know where to walk without being swallowed by the muddy ground? Two water pumps help to clear the mines from ground water. The generators are the only machines for miles. Everything else is done by hand. Digging and carrying the sand and gravel all the way up out of the mine. Remember playing lemmings?
This mine is owned by a Sri Lankan and about one hundred men work in it from 5am to 11am and again from 12 to 4pm. Each miner gets paid 10 000 Ariary a day, which is approximately three Swiss Francs and also compared to Malagasy standard close to nothing. In addition, don’t forget it is about 40 degrees and there is absolutely no shade.