Thoughts on a Visit to A Sapphire Rush Near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar

Thoughts On A Visit To A Sapphire Rush

[Click the title above to download this article.]

A “sapphire rush” which has escalated to approximately 45000 people occurred in the east of Madagascar, near Ambatondrazaka, last month. Blue and sought-after orangish-pink sapphires +100 carats (the size of a squash ball) are reported to have been found there. I was one of many, among miners, food sellers and porters to walk 12 hours into the jungle and to live alongside miners in a make-shift tented community. Living conditions were basic and there was no sanitation. I photographed the mining activity but it dawned on me in the throng of people that while my search had been for sapphires, the scene was much more complex than that.

Miner and Tented Community at "rush site" near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016

Miner and a tented community behind her. Photo: Rosey Perkins

This mining site is in an area under international protection for conservation. Madagascar is home to some of the most diverse and rare flora in the world. When the ground is shared with precious stones and poor people, conservation is not a simple formula. “You can’t talk about conservation to hungry people,” said Colleen Begg of Niassa Lion Project…and these people were certainly hungry. I saw toddlers, mothers and grandmothers make their way along the 35 km jungle track in flip flops, jelly shoes or with nothing on their feet at all. Their motivation went deeper than hunger. They do not trust their Government: one miner at the site even told me he was working quickly because the Government would soon take over and then [he believed] they would mine it for themselves and for their own profit.

In 3 days I saw no violence, it was just a hive of industry in one of the World’s last rainforests. Mining in a protected area is an offence that could lead to imprisonment, but in such numbers little could be done to deter the miners. The Gendarme did not have the physical capacity to evict them.

For the miners, sapphires weren’t the end game, they were the facilitator. This was their chance to elevate themselves; everyone had come to this site with a problem to fix. One miner introduced himself as a law student. He told me that for several years he had been unable to pay the bribe his university had asked from him. He needed to find a stone in order to graduate. Another said he wanted a car. The atmosphere was frenzied, as people anticipated a lock-down from the Government, which held a responsibility to protect the land.

There is however, in general, a disconnect between the theoretical penalties of mining in protected areas and reality on the ground. Cheers of self encouragement rose from the miners at work and in them I heard empowerment, there was sense of political populism. In the past, law enforcement has occasionally led to further environmental problems.

Sapphire in front of the rush site. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Sapphire in front of the rush site. Photo: Rosey Perkins

It’s not only the mining that impacts the environment but also the consequences of large numbers of people seeking supplies: wood for building houses and charcoal for cooking as well as food. On my way back to town, I passed several goat herders bringing meat to the miners. If the meat supply had been insufficient, the miners may have turned to bush meat. Madagascar’s rich gem soils are, as if Murphy had planned it, concentrated beneath an area essential for the survival of rare and endangered species. “Why don’t they plant trees on the West of the island where there are no sapphires,” asked a miner in earnest. For local people mining is a much needed source of income and the populist sentiment there says it is their right to mine “their” soil. But Madagascar’s rich biodiversity is one of it’s main attractions for tourists and damaging that would lead to serious economical consequences for the country.

Having visited and spoken to people at Gemfields’ mine in Mozambique and their London HQ, it’s clear the situation isn’t as simple as providing employment or alternatives. Their research into informal miner’s motivation for work suggested that a formalised mining job in a larger mining company would not necessarily satisfy many miners, who may be driven by dreams of finding a fortune, or supplement their main income as subsistence farmers during a period their farmland is unproductive. The demand for traceability is driven by the jewellers, but to formalise such mining is to demand a cultural shift and changes to local mining laws, health, safety and export conditions which only larger producers can currently respond to.

Miners digging at a rush site near Ambatondrazaka. Photo: Rosey Perins

Miners digging at a rush site near Ambatondrazaka. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Rushes in Madagascar occur frequently and in remote areas. “Madagascar is a difficult country with frequent conflict between conservationists and the gem industry. As it is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is a complex problem,” said Vincent Pardieu (GIA) who travels to mining areas across the globe to build a reference collection for the origin determination of ruby and sapphire. If this rush leads to further dialogue between conservationists and gem industry leaders, it would hopefully be positive for Madagascar.

Click here for the full report

Visit to Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar.

“A sapphire rush escalating to approximately 45000 miners has occurred in the Eastern Madagascan rainforest. On 23rd October I gained access from the nearby town Ambatrondrazaka, where I had been shown large sapphires of varied colours by foreign traders. I left the town by motorbike for a nearby village called Ansevabe. It was then a 11 hour walk to the mine site into an area which is in theory protected for conservation. We walked alongside miners and women carrying supplies and food to sell to the miners.

The valley opened to reveal a clearing in which people were building make-shift tents, feeding fires and digging. They collected potentially gem rich earth which they sieved to wash the dirt away and reveal the gravel in which they hoped to see gems. Stones were often large, and traders often took up place on the side of the hill so they could easily spot success. I was in the tents of some traders when they were approached by miners with some sapphires.

Some miners were professional and had travelled across the country to reach the mine site, others local making the most of the opportunity to earn some extra income. They worked together in teams of 4-5, digging several meters to shift the surface soil on order to reach the gem bearing layers further down. The Gendarme were present to oversee the area and keep peace, with such a large gathering, they could do nothing more.

It would be a blessing for the Malagasy gem industry and the local people if the area was not protected but in reality, that region East of Ambatondrazaka is part of a biodiversity conservation corridor, which is vital for the rare and endangered species living there.

It’s a difficult situation in which the interests of the wildlife and local people, the demand for gems compete. In this case, the gendarme have started controlling foreign buyers while also monitoring the mining activity.”

For Full report: Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazka, October 2016

Related Articles:

Boehm E. 2013. Colored Gemstone Ethical Fair Trade & Sustainability. Chubb Collectors Newsletter.

Cook, R., Healy, T., (2012) “Madagascar Case study: Artisanal mining rushes in protected areas and a response toolkit”, Estelle Levin and WWF,

Filou E. (15/11/2015) A Million Artisanal Gold Miners in Madagascar Wait To Come Out Of The Shadows The Guardian.

Pardieu, V., (2012) “Ruby and sapphire rush near Didy, Madagascar (April-June 2012)”,

Pardieu et al., (2014) “Rubies from a new deposit in Zahamena National Park, Madagascar”, Gems & Gemology, Winter 2015, Vol 51, No 4.,

Rakotondrazafy & al. (2008). “Gem Corundum Deposits of Madagascar: A Review.” Ore Geology Reviews (34): 134-154.

Walsh, A., (2012) “Made In Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism and the Global Bazaar.” University of Toronto Press.


Sapphire Rush East of Ambatondrazaka October 2016

In mid October 2016 a sapphire rush developed east of Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar in a theoretically protected area for conservation. About 45000 people had walked 12 hours into the jungle to dig for sapphires and I joined to find out exactly why.

Each morning I woke to the noise of digging and cheers rising through the morning mist that hung above the valley. Pots and pans clunked together as cooks served the stable: rice, pot noodles and watery haricot beans or coffee and mofo gasy (circular shaped donuts) to hungry people.

Miners, traders and brokers showed me stones they had found and traded: from  “au vive” (a light swimming pool blue with good transparency) to a deep “royal blue”. Some stones had an uneven colour distribution blue/white, many were actually milky and some were “polychrome” meaning that they were several colours but usually contained lots of brown. 

Sapphire at the rush site near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016.

Sapphire at the rush site near Ambatondrazaka, Madagascar. October 2016.

In the 3 days I spent there I didn’t see one sapphire taken directly from the sieve, although foreign traders were flying in to Madagascar having heard of fine +100 carat rough.

A Report on the Sapphire Rush, Mada. Oct 2016. By Rosey Perkins

To read a full account, which contains more details including photos of the stones and describes life at the mining site, please download the pdf by clicking the link above.

Gold Miners Escape

Miners of gold are working without government licenses in old, dry river beds in Niassa Reserve, Northern Mozambique. Dr Coleen Begg, who runs Niassa Carnivore Project explained to us that to separate gold with from other minerals poisonous mercury is used, and some is leaked into the river during the process. The Lugende River provides the local people with their main source of protein and if its fish stock is killed off – or reduced significantly – the local people are likely replace it with bush meat and so turn to poaching. Vincent Pardieu (GIA) wanted to fully understand the role of the miners in the context of conservation. While he was visiting Niassa so he accepted an invitation to join Niassa Carnivore Project’s scouts on patrol. I was fortunate to join them.

We set off by truck and were dropped off near an old dry river bed, which the scouts suspected the gold miners would prospecting. The area is surrounded by relatively thick bush, with paths trodden down between the trees. After walking for several hours we came across mounds of gravel where Fernando, the head scout motioned for us to stop talking and the other scouts dropped their bags and crept forwards. What he heard could have been wildlife, poachers or miners…he moved on and saw a footprint in the sand. He followed it. We hit the ground as the scouts moved on to find two men in tattered clothes, a bag of rice, a pot and some mining equipment including a carpet used to sieve gold, picks and shovels and a small bottle of mercury. It seemed a very humble way to live and a shame for them to face the penalty which can currently be up to 3 years imprisonment.

Unlicensed gold miners carrying their supplies and equipment out. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

Unlicensed gold miners carrying their supplies and equipment out. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA

We sat down to interview the miners who admitted to using mercury and that they were aware that gold mining in the reserve was illegal. Both had said they were there because elephants had destroyed their crops and had needed money.for food. Coleen works with the local village to provide crop protection solutions including elephant-proof fences. She installs swinging bee hives which deter elephants from crops and provides pollination as well as alternative sources of income including “elephant friendly honey.” She also provides scholarships for the education of local children. The current high price of gold makes Niassa’s resources a very tempting prospect. The scout team, Vincent and I set up our tents alongside the miners’. The nightly watch didn’t seem too vigilant – no handcuffs were used and there seemed to be good humour between the scouts and the miners. They were treated with nothing but respect.

Mercury used for gold mining in dry riverbeds, Niassa Reserve, Mozambique.

Mercury used for gold mining in dry riverbeds, Niassa Reserve, Mozambique. Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA.

Morning came and the miners were still there, just shivering under their blankets. It had been a cold night so we were keen to pack up and move on. We found another miner in the same dry riverbed that morning and he joined our crocodile line, Fernando in front. Soon we heard a shout from a scout at the back. It became apparent that the two miners at the back had escaped. Fernando was bitterly disappointed and sensed disloyalty among his troop. Further down the river bed we came another two miners and chased one down. At his camp the scouts destroyed their equipment by burning their carpet and pick handles. They confiscated the mercury and some poaching tools. The miners had also been hunting the guinea fowl….but the scouts hadn’t finished the job yet. An hours walk later that scout asked to go to the loo. Two walked a short distance to a tree, one gained a few meters and they both fled – one to be caught again. Fernando was livid. Perhaps for a young scout to find and detain a village elder like he had done was too tough a challenge on his sense of loyalty. All of their young scouts were recruited from the village – all except Fernando – and consciously so. But the village is small, the scouts have many relatives there, the penalty for gold mining is high… The challenges Coleen and Keith Begg face to conserve Niassa seem constantly changing and support from locals often hard-won. Alternative sources of employment is something Coleen talked about a lot. Here is an interesting talk about Niassa by Dr Coleen Begg.

Vincent and Coleen discuss conservation. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Vincent and Coleen discuss conservation. Photo: Rosey Perkins

Interesting articles on conservation and gemstones are here.

Melo Pearl

This gem is found in the Melo Shell. I say “found”, but few are lucky enough to do so and Vincent Pardieu (GIA), who took us to meet a dealer had previous spent several days trying to find them, right at the source. He took us to a Melo collector and trader in Hanoi, who estimated that 1 in 10,000 Melo shells may contain pearls. They are often found by fishermen, who catch the large shells to sell the meat but so rare are the pearls, that fishermen seldom recognise them. Many Melo bare the scars of a fisherman’s knife. In order to improve her chances of obtaining these rare pearls, she travels to Ha Long Bay Island to teach the fishermen about them and how to find them. She says that many Melo pearls are taken out of their shell with the meat, and cooked before they are recognised….and tens of thousands of dollars burnt.


A selection of Madam Yen’s Melo Pearls. Photo: Rosey Perkins

One of the most impressive we saw was a pale yellow pearl. We were told that having been bought from the fisherman, it had changed colour over the course of a week. The dealer was rightly dismayed to see it become paler but as it turned out, the pearl had been marinated and cooked in soy sauce for several hours in the shell before it’s discovery. The paling was taking it back to its natural colour rather than a treatment wearing off….but there are treatments to look out for.

Below is a large black pearl, which we saw in the same office and which Michele fell in love with.


Michele Prince with a black pearl Photo: Vincent Pardieu/GIA


Painting with Gems

A week in a mining area is definitely an education and Yen The, in Northern Vietnam is one town with a lot to teach. Largely small-scale in it’s mining practises and innovative with it’s resources, it is a model mining town. I travelled there with Vincent Pardieu, who makes frequent visits on behalf of Gemological Institute of America (GIA’s) field research department, and he kindly took me with a group of gemologists to the spinel and ruby mines in the area.


A overcast morning in Yen The, Viet Nam.

The dramatic mountains of Northern Vietnam are as impressive to the eye as the gems they hide and in less than 30 years since Yen The’s ruby deposits were discovered in 1987, it seems to have grown into a thriving hub of the Vietnamese gem trade. It produces rubies similar in colour to the Burmese ruby, cobalt (blue) spinel and bright red spinel, as well as tourmaline and (green) pargasite.

What happens to the bottom 98% of rough?

If gems are rare, gems of high enough quality for jewellery must be even rarer….and the vast proportion of stones found in the Yen The area aren’t of high enough quality to be used for jewellery. Lower quality rough can be used for sculptures and lower still can be used for emery paper but Yen The has also developed an art industry to use the low quality stones – i hope at higher profit. Their answer is Gem Painting.


A Gem Painting Closeup







In Yen The low grade rough gemstones are ground into powder, sorted by sieve and arranged on glass or canvas. Colourful canvases depict scenes of Hanoi and symbolic themes reflecting Fung Shue beliefs. The textured patterns of powdered gems are distinctive and are sold to tourists and locals. Gem paintings are hung in many homes and business here to strengthen relationships or stimulate success.


Lady from Yen The making a gem painting Photo: Vincent Pardieu

A Job for Women

Women here play an integral part at every stage of the gem mining process. It is common for women to dig for gems alongside their husbands on their farmland. Women hold the majority of the trading stands at the market, and as for their gem painting, they are the gem grinders and the artists. Gem painting is not a job solely for women but it is a job which is very accessible to females, and this is particularly pertinent parts of the world such as Africa and Sri Lanka, where the gem trade is traditionally male-dominated.

From Mine to Market

Local rough and cut stones are sold in the centre of town square, where any number between 10 and 30 women set up their stands every morning. Through shop windows, local people polish rough stones at cutting wheels, and jewellery shops sell finished pieces to tourists. Here, the gem’s path from mine to market can be condensed into a few kilometers. Gem painting is not a new idea, but it seems like a good idea for towns close to the mines to have developed this, especially since many miners lead a transitory life and often have to leave their families behind…I wonder where these gem paintings will find there homes.