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Ilakaka - city of sapphires

At the end of 1989 a French gemstone dealer found sapphires in an offer of garnet stones, at that time only he knew that these were sought-after gems and that there were some in Madagascar. He immediately sought a concession from the Ministry of Mines in Antananarivo and when he arrived back in Ilakaka about two months later there were already about 5000 people digging.

In the beginning there were hardly a few huts in the desert-like steppe area which is about 25 km south of Ranohira (Isalo N.P.), today far more than 30000 people live and work there, most of them come with a spade from the near and far provinces to earn something.

Ilakaka, despite the demographic explosion, is still not a city but a "zone minière", a mining zone. Ilakaka is not a city and has no name, for 23 years the place has been named after the stream that crosses it. The beginning of the rush was brutal and chaotic, many prospectors did not get out alive from the collapsed holes in the first years. Such information spreads across Madagascar at lightning speed and the same phenomena as the gold rush 150 years ago took place 23 years ago in the savannah of Madagascar.

Thousands of poor Madagascans, mainly from the barren south of Madagascar, have migrated to Ilakaka to get rich or just to be able to earn something, even if it means losing their lives. People have started to build huts around the holes and in some way to live there.

survive. Along the main road traders have settled, you can buy everything you need for prospecting and living. Meanwhile, the gasoline is no longer sold in bottles and small canisters at the roadside, there is a gas station. Of course, there is also everything that gives the place its uniqueness: Casinos and prostitutes, traders from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Thailand and other East Asian countries who take care of the purchase and the more or less legal execution of the gems. European dealers there are with the exception of a Swiss resident from the beginning no more, cut is in Asia.

A stark difference between the miserable huts of the miners and the huge villas of the traders (mainly the wholesalers in Sakhara, about 60 km away). The sapphires are found in a former river bed that winds invisibly & underground through the dry landscape 20 to 25 deep below ground.

It is a secondary deposition of the gems in the gravel of the underground riverbed. Where the stones were originally mined no geologist can trace. When everything started, there was no experience in the area in the deep south of Madagascar and also no notions of danger of collapse. One wanted to come to the gems and to come to the wealth one had to dig...for this one had only a narrow spade (Angady) which is usually used for the umstechen of the rice fields as a tool.

At that time well-like shafts of about 25 meters deep were dug and if one landed after about 5 weeks of hardest work in the former river bed one had luck, if the hole next to it the work had been in vain. No experience in the area, no wood in the desert-like savannah far and wide and anyway no money to buy which even if there would be.

When they reached the coveted gravel layer, they dug horizontally, without support, without ventilation, with a flashlight with Chinese batteries as the only illumination. There were so many deaths that other methods had to be invented to get to the coveted gems. Since then, 10 well-like holes have been dug which are

try to follow the former river bed in its meanders. In this respect, little has changed in the first phase The holes have a diameter of about 70 cm and must be dug through the hard earth, groundwater and other obstacles to a depth of 25 meters. The workers are "ventilated" from above with plastic sheets taped together to form a large bag with a "tube" of the same material that disappears into the hole. The bag is held up against the wind and fills with air. Then it is closed at the top and the worker presses the air into the hole with his basket.

When the 10 holes are finished, the gravel is brought to light and sorted out. Sapphires are not like gold which is simply weighed and has its value, several criteria determine the value: the size, the shape, the color, the transparency, the inclusions and cracks. A single perfect stone can be worth much more than a whole pile of stones of inferior quality. Now the findings must be evaluated to try to find investors to finance a total excavation of the area.

If the samples from the 10 holes were as expected, it takes about 30,000 dollars to dig a huge hole the size of a soccer field, which takes about 6 to 9 months and often requires up to 150 people in the scorching heat to throw the sterile earth with a spade from a terrace they have created on the higher until they land in the river bed. Then only very few & very well guarded workers work on the gravel. This is sorted either directly at the edge of the hole if the people are rich enough to afford a motor pump to wash with the pumped out groundwater.

A wooden frame (about 2 X1 M) with a narrow grid, investors on the right and left, in the middle a Coca Cola bottle filled with clear water. Two workers each have one hand behind their back and all fingers except one clenched into a fist with which they are searching, so they cannot steal stones with one finger. When a stone is found, the investors throw it into the bottle under the gaze of everyone present.

If there is no pump, the gravel is carried in bags over several kilometers on the head and sorted and washed in the stream. The investors know only then whether the thing was worthwhile or whether they lost money, the Malagasy workers know that they get a little less than 2 € per day for the drudgery and without any security to be able to work again the next day, all are day laborers.

The earth from the surface to the former riverbed is sterile and without meaning, one can ask why they don't use excavators instead of letting people dig with spades for months: it is cheaper to pay the people than the wear and diesel of the machines would cost.

As a European it is incomprehensible that it is so primitive, but if you know the Malagasy logic it becomes more understandable.

These are the most important sapphire mines in the world and that is not even the only feature that distinguishes these finds, nowhere else in the world are there sapphires in all colors of the rainbow.

From transparent stones it goes over, yellow, green, pink to the world famous blue gemstones.
What a long way from the impressive mines in the deep south of Madagascar, via the cutting factories in South-East Asia, the traders who make money from it, to the jewelry stores and the "haute joaillerie" of the world's famous jewelers. Finally, someone in the world wears the precious stones without suspecting what is behind them.

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After 10 months of total inactivity, self-employed people in the tourism industry in Madagascar are completely without income. There is no opening of the borders in sight in Madagascar and we are at the beginning of the rainy season, which is the low season, even in normal times. I have started a fundraiser for the guides and drivers I know well. From this money we will buy rice and other essentials and distribute them regularly, if possible, until the resumption of travel activities in April 2021 at the earliest. My special thanks to those who have already donated. I will start buying rice tomorrow and will begin distributing it this week.
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