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The Path of a Sapphire

In 2002, 50% of the world supply of rough sapphires came from Madagascar (USGS; 1), which is the world’s fourth largest island with a relatively poor population of 18 million and an especially high number of endemic species. Despite this nation’s wealth of biodiversity, precious stones and gold, it has a Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.509 ranking it at 143 out of 177 (up from 0.453 and 150 out of 177 in 2003) countries rated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Most of Madagascar’s GDP is from services, agriculture and industry but the discovery of sapphires in 1994 has unfolded into a series of sapphire boomtowns to which citizens, especially those with a subsistence lifestyle, flock to try their luck in the pits.

On its journey from mine to market, a rough sapphire passes through many hands. It is unearthed by a digger, or by a washer sifting through mined gravel in a waterway, at a mine site. It is then usually sold to a woman who either brings it to a local market herself or sells it to a “businessman” with transportation and access to a market in a nearby town. These local markets are customarily not open to foreigners and it is here that the Malgasey “businessmen” collect stones to show to their foreign associates. These foreign associates most often meet with their contacts to survey collected stones in the capital, Antananarivo.

Unlike most commodities, normally sold to mobile buyers at fixed vending points, stones are sold by mobile venders who travel to fixed “offices” (often hotel rooms) of foreign dealers. Dealers who purchase stones from these native businessmen are required to pay for special government visas, declare the value of stones they wish to export, and pay a 2% tax on all exported rough stones but not on stones that have been cut in Madagascar. By law, all exported stones must pass through the government mining lab for quality analysis and other data collection. While most stones are exported legally through these formal channels, large, valuable stones tend to be carried out of the country by way of mysterious, illicit routes; an estimated 50 million USD worth of stones leaves the country illegally each year [1].

One major concern is the use of child labor in various stages of the Madagascar mining industry, from digging to selling stones. Shown here is a girl of 9 years sieving rough stones. While child labor is common in all sectors of the Malagasy economy, the health and security risks of sapphire mining make the involvement of children particularly worrisome.