29 April 2012

New sapphire rush underfoot - this time in sensitive rainforest

An article in the Telegraph sheds light on a rush to extract sapphires from the rainforest of Eastern Madagascar where I work.

This follows in the wake of substantial gold mining in the area in recent years. The mining has increasingly become a problem in the absence of state enforcement and as local management groups are fighting to gain control over their forests. When I was there last July, I frequently heard the refrain that the law protects what's above the soil but not what's under it.
Artisanal gold-mining pits are rather small and though they may extend in a network over a square kilometer or more, the damage is far more localized than much larger open pit, organized sapphire mining. Photo © Sara Tolliver 2011
Many local people were turning to mining to make a living because they didn't see any other alternatives. It is perceived as a way out of poverty despite the fact that many toil severely without finding enough gold to make it worth their while.

The sapphire deposit was discovered only a month ago and thousands of miners are flooding the area. Its still unclear to me where exactly this deposit was found, but the article implies that it is somewhere in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena protected area, a vast area of rainforest with incredible conservation value. Scouring the Peace Corps blogosphere, Evan says that the gems were found near Didy (he also does a great job explaining just how huge and rapid of an impact this new boom is). While I work down near the town called Fierenana on the map below, the sapphire trade seems to be centered in Ambatondrazaka, the regional capital 6 hours north of my site, and 2-3 hours north of Didy by car. In between, there are hundreds of villages that dont make it onto the map.

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The gold mining boom the last couple of years was mostly by local people, but this sapphire rush is different. It has been acknowledged as a significant deposit by the trade and miners and traders are flooding in from other regions and abroad. As the article explains, there is no infrastructure here and people are using the forest to meet their needs, many in protected areas.
"As many as 10,000 miners and precious stone traders from around the world are reported to have raced to the eastern region to extract the blue-tinted stones and ship them overseas.
As well as digging up the forest floor, they are cutting down trees for firewood and shelter in the hitherto untouched wilderness and hunting resident animals, particularly lemurs, for bushmeat."

Sapphire mining in South-West Madagascar.  Can you imagine
this seen in the middle of the rainforest? Image from The Natural Sapphire Company

With the continuing national level political instability and lack of enforcement for forest laws, this new rush threatens to be a serious impediment to conservation efforts as well as sustainable development. When the stones, which will be sucked up by international traders are gone, the only legacy local people will have left is the destruction to the forest that they left in their wake.