Madagascar: Sapphire Rush
Since 1998 the region of Ihosy has been undergoing a process very similar to the Gold Rush phenomenon in California in 1848. There has been a large influx of immigrants due to the discovery of sapphires. First there was much internal migration of people from all over the country which is composed of 18 ethnicities. Secondly, there has been immigration from foreign countries like Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, or South Africa. Suddenly, the dry landscape of Ihosy was inhabited by small and provisional villages with hardly any public services. No healthcare, no electricity or water supply, as well as lack of governmental security were very common circumstances of the inhabitants. Everything was provisional and privatized. Therefore, mafias and crime rates rose promptly and large fortunes were made, joined very often, with big private and foreign investments.
On the other hand, many of Malagasy miners work everyday under exhausting conditions to escape from the traditional poverty. Today, although the region is more secure, the phenomenon still has a fascinating similarity with the history of the American Far West. At the same, this calls into question why most of the benefits leave country. The feature shows how they are exploited by big enterprises, or by their own needs, the selling of sapphires, child labor and prostitution. A journey through small villages of the Idaho region, including Voimena Mafana, Antsohamadiro and the infamous Ilakaka.
Among shanty dwellings and mud tracks, emerges provisory hotels in wood, casinos, restaurants and discos. After dusk prostitutes starts walking the main road looking for clients of any ages and social status. The city is ruled by an internal law. Fortunately are gone those years when local mafias ran the sapphire business with guns. Today the 20.000 inhabitants town is organized by small squads who keep clean the city. Situation seems today controlled. Nevertheless, Terees, a local policeman, advices me that there is still a rate of 20 killed per year. Not in vain, people said that Ilakaka remains the most dangerous city of Madagascar.
Anyway walking around the streets is an unique experience. A multicolored local world surrounds the visitor. Small markets are spread all over the city where it is not hard to find products from the whole Island. The hustle and bustle of the city is endless. Even during the night streets are crossed by small groups of miners going to work while others are drinking beer and meeting prostitutes. Already at dawn light, everywhere it is sold coffee and boko-bokos, a local sweet bread, to get energy for the working day. In the main road, taxis wait to get new customers for the mine, sometimes several kilometers away while others go by walking. Besides this, there are places everywhere, where sapphires, or stones which look like, are sold. Everyone expects to scape poverty from sapphire’s market and behaves like being close of a little fortune waiting for him. In any case, Ilakaka is a paradise in terms of money and jobs compared with most rural areas.
That explains, in a way, why Ilakaka is the capital of gems in the Island. Now rather a miners camp that was years before is a center of sale and distribution. In the surroundings new villages are developing the same way, like Antsohamadiro or Manombo Be. Still primitive settlements but changing very quick their social structures.
Apart the Hollywood view of the phenomenon, we should not forget that most of the people living there, are families trying to improves their starving hard conditions of life. From small shaft to huge mines like Color-mine, the rush for sapphires disseminates all over the region. It is common, for example, to see children with no educations and women spending the whole day working with their parents. Everyone is needed in a always sunny and desert landscape without much water to develop a certain agriculture of subsistence.
Madagascar is one of poorest countries of the world, and, unfortunately, most of the wealth extracted from the hearth goes to foreigners hands. Therefore, sapphire’s markets it is a one symptom more of the difficulties of the population to profit their owns natural resources to save from poverty.
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