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The Sapphire Mines of Ilakaka, Madagascar


Ilakaka is a small town in the south west of Madagascar along Route Nationale 7, the main road linking the capital city Antananarivo to the port of Toliara. Twenty years ago, Ilakaka practically didn’t exist with barely 40 residents. In less than ten years, its population soared to 60,000 as people from all over Madagascar began flocking here in search of sapphires.

Sapphire was discovered in southern Madagascar in the late 1990s. Until then, Ilakaka was little more than a truck stop with a small collection of huts and a few dozen residents. When word of the discovery got out, Ilakaka swelled to tens of thousands of residents, and this sleepy hamlet became the sapphire capital of the world supplying nearly 50% of all the sapphires in the world.

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Photo credit: salymfayad/Flickr

Despite the economic boom, Ilakaka never developed further than a shanty town where poor families dwell in tiny wooden houses. Most of the workers here had come with the intention of striking it rich and heading back to their home villages but ended up getting trapped in the system where Malagasy workers are exploited by the Thais and Sri Lankan merchants. There are large number of illegal miners operating in Ilakaka who smuggle large amounts of gems out of the country. There is little lawness despite the presence of a police force.

In recent years, Ilakaka has fallen on hard times as all easily-mined sapphire fields have been picked clean, and the remaining miners often work in deep holes, climbing far underground.

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Photo credit: Andreas Hafenscher/Flickr
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Photo credit: David Denicolò/Flickr
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Photo credit: www.madacamp.com
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Photo credit: ecololo/Flickr
Sapphire miners in Ilakaka, Madagascar
Digging for Saphirs
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Sources: Wild Madagascar / Slate / BBC
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