Madagascar’s sapphires
by Laura Tilghman

Madagascar’s sapphires

Research and fieldwork focused on the demographics, sociology and environmental implications of artisanal sapphire mining in Madagascar. Ecological impacts, social benefits and harms, and relevant policy interventions were examined. Laura Tilghman conducted interviews with miners and made careful ethnographic observations at four sapphire mining areas during the fall of 2005. Her in depth work was built on preliminary contacts and fieldwork done previously by Merrill Baker.

We are grateful for the help provided to Laura by four Malgasy translators: Elise Tora Soaraziky in the Andranodambo region; Nossi Eunice in the Ilakaka/Sakaraha region; MIHA Andreas in the Andranodambo region; and MARA Felix in the Ifanato region. Laura’s interviews were supplemented with fieldwork by Saleem Ali and Sally DeLeon focusing on the gemstone value chain as well as information collected from relevant secondary reports and interviews with key stakeholders in government, development agencies, NGOs, consulting businesses and miners’ associations. To jump to a particular section of this summary, use the links at right.

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The Path of a Sapphire
Sapphire Deposits and Mining Sites
Environmental Impacts
Social Impacts
Recommendations for Key Stakeholders

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].

Sapphire Deposits and Mining Sites

The map to the left [2] shows the locations of identified geological deposits of sapphires, rubies and other corundums around the island. The study sites chosen for our research on artisanal sapphire mines were located in the southeast (Andranodambo), north (Abondromifehy), and southwest (Ilakaka-Sakaraha and Ifanato). These four sites were selected to represent communities at different chronological stages in the mining “rush” cycle and to represent a diversity of biogeographic regions. The sites were also chosen based on level of sapphire production and importance in the market, and environmental importance and sensitivity. For a detailed description of the characteristics of each site, view Table 4 from the full report. The report also features a shaded relief map with each of the four study sites clearly marked.

View the study sites as satellite images:

Andranodambo area
Ambondromifehy area and
Ilakaka-Sakaraha area Ifanato area

Environmental Impacts of Sapphire Mining

There are three major categories of environmental degradation that can be assigned directly to artisanal mining in Madagascar, as well as a variety of indirect impacts that stem from the population fluctuations and tragedy of the commons behavior that accompany artisanal mining activity:

Deforestation ~ in order to access soil for digging, trees are cleared and/or roots are damaged; tree trunks, limbs and shrubs are often chopped down to reinforce mine shafts, build structures to haul stones out of holes, construct tools for mining, and provide fuel.

Sedimentation and Siltation ~ during the process of sieving and washing gravel, large amounts of rocks, small pebbles and dirt enter rivers and lakes and disrupt ecosystems by reducing photosynthetic capacity, clogging animal filters used for respiration and feeding, and covering over important habitat spaces; clogging also interferes with human systems of navigation, tourism and irrigation

~ in order to supplement their meager diets, miners may hunt nocturnal lemurs and other animals in or around protected areas, thus reducing population numbers and endangering biogenetic resources

Indirect Impacts ~
as the population around mining areas increases and the standing economy is disrupted, there are harmful ramifications for forests, water supplies and air quality: wood is cut for shelter, fuel, and making charcoal and craft items to sell; downstream effects of poor sanitation and sedimentation lead to problems with maintenance of a clean supply of water, as well as impacts on sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs and underground caves; standing water left in open mine pits changes ecological structure and can result in growing mosquito populations that act as disease vectors

Social Impacts of Sapphire Mining

Due to the income that it generates, there are clear, positive effects of sapphire mining in the sites visited. The informal economy that springs up around rush towns allows the economic value of sapphires to spread to traveling vendors and service providers, including hotel owners, people who provide translation services to foreign buyers, and people who are hired as security guards and mine operation personnel. In addition the presence of sapphires and other stones creates many opportunities to start new businesses that add value to the stones through stone cutting and jewelry design. Much of the income generated appears to be used by individuals for education, start-up funds for small businesses, and purchasing grazing land for zebus. It is not our intention to discount these important economic benefits by summarizing the negative social impacts of sapphire boomtowns:

Public Health Concerns ~ a lack of infrastructure in mining towns results in poor sanitation for all; outbreaks of disease, particularly cholera, are common and exacerbated by overcrowding in these towns; shortages of clean water for cooking and drinking also contribute to general health problems

Disruption of Local Economic Sustainability
~ sapphire “fever” causes people to abandon their regular occupations to join the diggers which raises demand for imported food and contributes to inflated food prices; good agricultural land is destroyed in the hunt for sapphires

Increases in Risky Behaviors
~ the “wild west” mentality of boomtowns brings social hazards that erode the social capital of communities: increased demand for prostitutes results in higher rates of HIV transmission; fires that destroy homes and community structures are more prevalent; escalating crime reinforces itself when police and government officials are unable to keep up with the rising demands of safety enforcement

Cultural Disrespect
~ immigrating diggers do not respect local customs or traditions and this behavior can lead locals to abandon these values to compete in the digging; traditional ecological knowledge and customs associated with sustainable practices may be lost in this behavioral sea change

Occupational Hazards for Diggers
~ miners accept dangerous working conditions mostly out of desperation and foolhardiness: at sites with a hard limestone substrate, shards and rocks can fall or spin out of control injuring diggers, and underground fires used to soften limestone can result in smoke inhalation injuries; at sites with sandy or loose soil, pits are prone to collapse and trap, suffocate or injure miners; at all sites, poor nutrition exacerbates risks and injured diggers have little or no access to health care services

Government Regulation of Artisanal Sapphire Mining

The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MoM) oversees management of six provincial mining offices, mining sector projects like the Mineral Resource Governance Project (PGRM), the Mining License Office, and the Mining and Geology Office. All legislation that affects mineral extraction is detailed in the Mining Code, which divides the total area of Madagascar into 2.5 km squares and defines which of these squares has associated mining rights. A government-issued permit is required in order to undertake mineral-related activity on any of these squares.

The type of permit associated with artisanal mining (called a Small-Scale Mining Permit or PRE) is reserved exclusively for Malgasy citizens, valid for 8 years, renewable, and tied to permission for exploration and non-mechanized mining using only hand tools. The cost of a PRE is officially around 16 USD in the first year and increases by this amount each year that it is extended (32 USD in the second year; 48 USD in the third year etc.), but interviews revealed that undefined administrative fees are often added to this base cost. At the time of this research study, 899 Malgasy citizens held 1,668 PREs covering a total of 8,760 square kilometers of land. Most of the sapphire mining that takes place in Madagascar today is still carried out illegally without a permit. A number of environmental and social regulations are associated with the permits and these regulations are enforced fleetingly and sporadically:

Environmental Regulations ~ Permit holders are required to pay for environmental impact statements and submit compatibility and commitment plans for rehabilitation projects to the MoM before they are given approval to start exploration or mining; While permit holders are given rights to use wood, water and other resources on the property for their work needs, they are forbidden from mining inside parks or within 80 meters of private property, villages, communal wells, sacred sites, “art masterpieces” etc.

Social Regulations
~ Permit holders are required to exploit resources as efficiently as possible and must provide potable water, health care, first aid and evacuation services to diggers and other workers; Populations living near mining areas have the right to solicit help from the MoM to protect themselves or their communities from mining activities that present a danger such as a loss of a water source or a communication line.

Existing Programs to Improve Mining Conditions

There are very few projects, policies, and organized efforts that directly affect small-scale sapphire miners in Madagascar. The Mineral Resource Governance Project (PGRM) and the Business and Market Expansion Program (BAMEX) are two notable exceptions. Both of these programs have focused recent past efforts on reducing poverty and promoting sustainable development within the small-scale mining sector, nonetheless, neither currently aims to address problems with small-scale mining as their highest priority. It appears that governmental preferences to focus on the more obvious economic benefits of large-scale mining, and development agency concerns with preservation of biodiversity are drawing funds and attention away from working with small-scale gemstone miners to avoid environmental harms and promote social benefits.

PGRM ~ The mission statement of this program emphasizes the implementation of governmental strategies to reduce poverty by improving management of mineral resources. The program has received $39.6 million USD in World Bank funding for a 5-year period from 2003-2008. Primary objectives include:
1) improving transparency and governance in the mining sector;
2) institutional reform for the decentralized management of mineral resources;
3) promotion of major investments and ways to add value to mineral resources;
4) rapid and sustainable growth of the mining sector and increase of economic
impacts for the population with an aim to reduce poverty;
5) improvement of natural resource management to prevent degradation of the

The effectiveness of the program has been mixed, but a major success has been the development of the Gemology Institute of Madagascar (IGM) where a growing number of Malgasy citizens are learning the art and science behind gemology and lapidary processes. BAMEX ~ This program aims to develop Madagascar’s private sector in a market-led but sustainable and environmentally sensitive manner. Its’ focus has been on four sectors of the private economy: agricultural products, handicrafts, ecotourism and precious stones.

The program is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with a fund for improving good governance and reducing corruption, and is implemented by Chemonics International and International Business Initiatives (IBI). Funding for the precious stones project ended in 2006. This project’s emphasis was on value-added activities and marketing opportunities in the later stages of the sapphire production chain, not on sapphire mining. However, the program conducted a participatory rural appraisal to study the gemstone mining sector in the Ilakaka-Sakaraha region in mid 2005. The results of this inquiry are under discussion and may lead to further projects in the region. Plans for further projects are likely to surface in mid 2007 after a series of government-organized, multi-stakeholder strategic meetings to decide future directions for mining sector reform.

Recommendations for Key Stakeholders

There is a strong need for programs with direct impacts on artisanal gemstone miners in Madagascar. Useful approaches will focus on one or both of the major challenges: improving health and safety by reforming miners’ work and living conditions, and improving environmental management of mined regions to ameliorate negative impacts. In hope of catalyzing steps forward, we provide the following recommendations for governments, environmental NGOs, and miners. While these groups are not the only stakeholders in the policy issues surrounding artisanal mining in Madagascar, our research has yielded some suggestions to spur their efforts.


The relevant goals of federal policy and implementation with regards to gemstone mining are to minimize negative impacts in order to protect the public, and to increase monetary benefits received from sale of permits and collection of taxes on stones. In light of these fundamental aims, we suggest that reform be focused in two pathways: enforcement of clear mining regulations, and changes to mining regulations to encourage participation and formalization of artisanal miners. Enforcement of existing laws, especially the ban on mining within protected areas, is imperative and will demonstrate effective governance to miners, who currently may not know the law or else choose to ignore it.

New mining regulations that are not clearly communicated to the public and effectively enforced will only deepen problems of distrust, disorganization, and misperceptions about mining. With the establishment of new laws to govern mining in potential new protected areas to be established under the Durban Vision, as well as for land to be managed by communities under the national Gestion Locale Securisee (GELOSE) law, opportunities for timely legislation and effective public communications campaigns will be ripe. Educational materials should be written in language accessible to miners and made available in French, Malgasy and pictorial or visual versions. Innovative approaches to education miners, like card games and dramatic performances, may be worthwhile approaches with which to experiment; by monitoring impacts of new approaches, managers can gather the information needed to choose the most effective ones for continuing campaigns.

Environmental NGOs

The main concern of these non-governmental organizations’ is to protect the Malgasy Environment by promoting conservation and beneficial activities,while discouraging harmful or destructive behaviors. In general, these organizations are not very comfortable about working with mining, and they are generally unwilling to compromise on issues of preservation and protection. Nonetheless, with a daunting job like protecting the environment, NGOs need to find all possible routes to effective negotiation, participation, and informal regulation that they can access. For this reason, it is in their best interest to engage with mining in order to have a sustainable impact on its regulation.

We suggest that environmental NGOs use their scientific and network resources to catalyze a multi-sector planning group that would systematically survey the mining landscape. By cataloging the mosaic of ecologically intact areas and badly degraded areas within new mining sites and overlaying this map with a spatial survey of areas with high potential for gemstone mining, they could guide mining activity away from ecologically important assets and toward low priority sites with high gemstone prevalence. An additional direction that we suggest as a potential collaboration with mining is to create a certification program for sapphires and other gemstones that are mined in an environmentally-sound manner.

Groups like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have developed and implemented environmental certification programs for other resource commodities, and their insights coupled with ideas about certification for small-scale producers, such as the Green Gold Certification program implented by Corporacion Oro Verde in Columbia, could help with initial conceptualization of such an initiative.


Due to poverty, desperation and a focus on survival, miners are understandably most concerned with maximizing their earnings at whatever personal, societal, or environmental cost is necessary. We suggest that miners concentrate on forming and joining effective cooperatives. By organizing into cooperatives, they improve their negotiating power, tap into labor economies of scale, and increase their chances of maximizing earnings. Cooperatives can access opportunities to produce unique products that may fetch a premium price, and channels for technology and education that will allow miners to increase their earning potential.


[1] Tom Cushman. Personal Communication to Laura Tilghman. 24 November 2005.
[2] Giuliani et al. (2007). Oxygen isotope systematics of gem corundum deposits in Madagascar: relevance for the geological origin. Miner Deposita. 42: 251-270.

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