Sapphire mining in Madagascar is largely artisanal small scale mining. Hand tools are usually used instead of machinery and much of the activity is unlicensed. Mining for sapphires took off in Madagascar following discoveries of basalt-related deposits in the north and south of the country in the late 1990s. In recent years rushes have occurred relatively frequently in the east of the island but activity and access is complicated by the protected rainforests, where mining is banned.
My interest in Madagascan gems was sparked during a talk Vincent Pardieu gave at GIA Carlsbad, following an expedition he had made to Didy in 2015. In mid September 2016 I arrived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, with 5 weeks to learn about the country and it’s gem deposits. I would be travelling alone, since GIA’s field expedition, which I had intended to be on, was cancelled. First, I visited the Institute of Gemmology, Madagascar, where Erik, a gemmology teacher there gave me a tour as well as some advice about travelling in Madagascar. I had also contacted MadaClinics, an NGO based in a mining community, which offered to accommodate me.
The “polychrome” sapphires (containing more than one colour) from Northern Madagascar intrigued me. I wanted to see them, where they came from and to compare them with my memory of those from Queensland, Australia. Although the sapphires from these regions are geographically distant today, visually they have similarities.
Sapphires were found in northern Madagascar in 1996 and a rush soon began. They are blue, green and yellow or violet in colour, (BGY) with some containing a mixture of several colours, referred to as “polychrome” sapphire. Ambondromifehy (also spelt Ambondrofe) is a gem trading town about 4 hours south by bus (“taxi brousse”) from the region’s capital, Diego Suarez, also known as Antisaranana. In the late 1990s, it had attracted men from all over Madagascar who were searching for work and hoping for a fortune. When I arrived, that excitement had long dissolved, leaving a quiet trading town surrounded by small scale mines.
I flew from Antananarivo to Diego Suarez and caught the “taxi-brousse” to Ambondromifehy with Nono, MadaClinic’s coordinator, who was also my guide and translator. We stopped alongside a row of trader’s huts, homes and informal cafes. A trader emerged with tray of faceted blue sapphires for sale and we witnessed some miners bringing their finds to a female middle man who had set up her trading shop/cafe on the side of Route Nationale 6.
I was glad to be met by Rasta, a local and Adrian the school teacher at Maventibao, who helped us carry our many bags up the hill to the village, which we reached 2 hours later after dark.
Some time after the initial “rush,” Demco Energy and Mining Company LLC company obtained a mining license near Maventibao but left over ten years ago and now the mining is small scale and informal. Ben Shipley, a former Demco security guard returned to set up MadaClinics, which provides free healthcare and education to the mining community. I stayed with them for 5 nights and my donations for accommodation helped fund the project.
Most, if not all of the village were miners and had families, who lived in huts they had built. They dug pits into the sandstone with hand tools and sometimes they tunnelled from there or went directly into the side of a hill. The surface undulated about 20ft and the area, which I spent 2 days exploring by foot, had been mined fairly extensively. The mines were not covered over when finished and Nono told me that people often return to old sites. Several 15ft “fissures” in the rock floor stretched out to a cliff face near the village. I had hopped over one in the dark but I imagined people could fall into them easily. Nono brushed off my concern and told me that was very rare.
One miner showed me a tunnel that went 18 feet into a sandstone face. He had found a bluish grey clay, which he took as an indicator for sapphires. Nono dug at the surface of the soil near the village with a stick. Sapphires are everywhere, he told me. The soil is rich with them.
Adrian, a teacher at the primary school in Maventibao, took me to see his cousins in the village, who were informal miners and were happy to show me where they were mining. We crawled about 12ft into the tunnel, where his cousin and uncle were digging with spades into the side of a small cave.
They took me from their mine to the river, where his aunt and younger children helped sieve the gravel. They were collecting the sapphires into a small plastic pot, which they took into Ambondromifehy to sell.
It was the school holidays and this little girl had been helping her parents mine for sapphires.
She proudly showed me her sapphires, ones she had pick out from her father’s sieve in the river near her home. Her father watched over her and sieved his pan.
The majority of the sapphires I saw at Maventibao were very small: less than 0.3 carats and was quite “included”. Miners living in Maventibao were not seeking a fortune. It was a simple way of life but with the riches of the ground and the help of MadaClinics they had the basics.
I explored other villages around Ambondromifehy by foot and found one mining village east of the town, called Makanue, particularly interesting. There, shafts were up to 40 meters deep, they told me. I didn’t go down because they were all working. One team of miners had worked around the clock for over a week in shifts, giving oxygen to the miners below via a plastic “air sock” (figure 11) and resting in a make-shift tent when “off duty”. Of the stones I saw at a mine site in the area around Ambondromifehy, the purest and most saturated blue sapphire that cut above 1 carat came from here.
The hard labour was done by men, while women checked the sieve. Often, it was a family affair but one camp we came across had been set up by a group of boys, who looked like they were in their early 20s.
Many traders had set up in Ambondromifehy but some walked towards the mining areas and sat in a hut for the day, waiting for the miners.
Anzhannako is another trading hub along Route Nationale 6, on the edge of Ankarana National Park, where mining was taking place, I was told. I did not visit but I was told that it was tolerated there. Other areas were protected by the Gendarme (military police). In Anzhannako, traders showed us stones, among them were a +10 carat sapphire, some small star sapphire rough and one blue dipyramidal sapphire crystal.
I looked for a gem cutter in Ambondromifehy and found one but he was only able to cut cabochons, so it seemed that the faceted stones offered on the road side by traders in Ambondromifehy were likely to have been cut in Diego. Xiang, a Chinese stone dealer, showed me the stones his broker brought him, most of which were garnets and sapphires but I saw a very small trapiche-type blue rough stone among them. He described the sapphire mining areas he had visited in Madagascar and was especially interested in Antsirabe, a small village in the forest of NorthWest Madagascar, near Ankaramy-Be. He offered to take me there if I helped him improve his English and I agreed.
A word of thanks:
Thank you to friends who worried about me on the trip. It was a dream of an expedition to go on and I’m looking forward to more. Many thanks to Vincent Pardieu for his training on previous field expeditions, for his support and for telling me to go north first. Had he not, I may not have seen these places. Andrew Walsh, thank you for your advice and for telling me about MadaClinic and to Nono, Adrian, Mama Flavi and all those who welcomed me. MadaClinics are always looking for volunteers and can be contacted via their website or facebook page.
This article is about the experiences of the author and the information she gathered on her trip to the mine site. Any views expressed are only the author’s opinions. Her information is dependent on the people she has met – so are the spellings of the village names. If information in this article is proved incorrect, incomplete, biased or offensive it is not the authors intent. The aim of the article is to record and share this personal and unusual experience.
Cook, R., Healy, T., (2012) “Madagascar Case study: Artisanal mining rushes in protected areas and a response toolkit”, Estelle Levin and WWF, https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/Bios-Cons-Nat-Pro-691-008.pdf
Hughes et al., (2006) “Sorcerers & sapphires: A visit to Madagascar.” The Guide, Vol. 25 (Issue 1, Part 1, Jan–Feb): pp. 1, 4–6.
Pardieu, V. Basic Rules of Field Gemology. http://www.fieldgemology.org
Rakotondrazafy & al. (2008). “Gem Corundum Deposits of Madagascar: A Review.” Ore Geology Reviews (34): 134-154.
Schwartz et al., (2000) Sapphires from Antisarana Province, Northern Madagascar. Gems and Gemology.
Walsh, A., (2012) “Made In Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism and the Global Bazaar.” University of Toronto Press.