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fROMTHECOLTANOF CONGO, TOTHE‘BLOOD diamonds’ of Sierra Leone, to the gold of Columbia and Madagascar’s sapphires, the mix of relatively accessible natural resources and lack of infrastructure has created a boom for artisanal, small scale mining. All it needs is a shovel, some basic knowledge and manpower. According to the British government, artisanal mining employs around twenty million of the world’s very poorest people, with up to eighty million more dependent on the industry. The island of Madagascar – marooned off the south-eastern coast of Africa – is most famous for its extraordinary flora and fauna, and the odd animated cartoon film. In the wild savannah of southern Madagascar, the last ten years has seen an extraordinary boom in the precious stone trade. An area otherwise supported by subsistence farming produces the majority of the world’s sapphires. Ilakaka is the town at the heart of Malagasy sapphire trade. Ten years ago it was a small rural village on the road between the capital Antananarivo and the port of Tulear, but the recent sapphire boom has seen the town’s population explode to more than sixty thousand. Huge open cast earthworks puncture the landscape, and organised teams extract the dusty soil that may contain their prize. According to Tom Cushman, advisor to the World Bank, these miners are drawn by wages of up to $1.75 a day, six or seven times a farm worker’s earnings. Patrons – who own the concession – employ the miners, often supply basic food and other goods, and are responsible for transporting and selling stones. Arrangements vary, but generally they take a third of the value of any stones found. However, most of the mining in Madagascar is carried out by people who are not working for a boss. Batena prefers to work for herself – she can look after her children that way. She would like them to go to school but the sapphire rush has stretched Ilakaka’s system beyond capacity, and children’s labour is an essential part of the family’s livelihood. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has branded mining one of the ‘worst forms of child labour’, and Unicef estimates 32 percent of Madagascan children work, meaning the country has one of the world’s highest rates of child labour. This is something both parents and the Malagasy government are keen to change, but the most isolated rural mines can be days’ travel away from the nearest schools, and with no alternatives, migrating families and poverty – all powerful contributing factors – it is an uphill struggle to get children out of the mines and back into education. In the most remote rural areas single shaft mines descend to more than fifteen metres, with horizontal shafts running out from there. Among rocky scrubs are scenes reminiscent of artillery shelled battlefields, in each hole a team of workers digs and sifts the soil that may contain the stone they are searching for. Working in teams of three or more, two will descend to dig, and one remains at the surface, operating the winch. The soil is carried to a river where sediment is ‘panned’ away – leaving the heavier sapphire.



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