Sapphire mines that become forests

How communities in Madagascar are taking action to tackle the environmental impact of mining

13 October 2017
François plants a young rosewood tree

Tending trees in Madagascar

Sapphires from the island of Madagascar, ranked among Earth's top ten most ecologically diverse countries, wow the world's top traders and jewellers. The nation is one of the world's biggest sapphire suppliers – yet artisanal sapphire mining harms both this rich biodiversity and the wider environment.

Despite its environmental and mineral riches, Madagascar remains among the world's poorest countries. Seventy-five per cent of Madagascans live below the poverty line. 

Now poor communities in the south of the country are taking steps to fight environmental degradation and loss. Shovels in hand, they are restoring land abandoned by artisanal miners – and finding new vocations and talents in the process.

Madagascar's sapphire rush

Sapphires were found in Southern Madagascar in the late 1990s and within a few years the country became one of the world's leading producers of high quality sapphires. By the early 2000s, the town of Sakaraha had become the biggest gem-trading centre in Madagascar.

The town sprang almost out of nowhere: a few years earlier it was a tiny village. In 2017, it boasts a population of 120,000, which includes people living in the vicinity – most of whom depend on gemstone mining and trade, directly or indirectly. More recently, a new, larger deposit has been found in the north-east of the country, where the mining area of Bemainty was believed to be attracting 1,500 to 2,000 new people per day in October 2016 alone.

As most sapphires in Madagascar are mined artisanally, the number of informal and unsafe artisanal mines in the country has multiplied exponentially. Running on muscle power and the hope of leaving poverty behind, their environmental impact has been detrimental. Need and a lack of other employment opportunities have driven illegal and informal miners to exploit deposits in rainforest or protected areas.

Madagascar is home to five per cent of the world's biodiversity. While estimates vary, the World Wide Fund for Nature says that 95 per cent of its reptiles, 92 per cent of its mammals, and more than 11,000 species of plants exist nowhere else on EarthConservation organisations have been ringing alarm bells about the threat posed by sapphire mining to endemic species. Emblematic species, such as the indri lemurs, are now in danger.

Mining also impacts local communities as sapphires are mined in the vicinity of villages. Miners tend to move on swiftly in search of new deposits and leave sites behind. Abandoned shafts become deep and dangerous holes in land used by communities.

New mining sites can appear almost overnight. But when there is word about a big find elsewhere, sites can just as quickly be abandoned

New mining sites can appear almost overnight. But when there is word about a big find elsewhere, sites can just as quickly be abandoned

Miners themselves also face risks due to the poor health and safety practices in informal sites. With little knowledge of how to assess and price gems, they do not often get fair prices for their sapphires and remain trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty.

The German development cooperation agency GIZ recently set up a dialogue process aiming to tackle this complex situation. The dialogues have been arranged with support from the Madagascar Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, and included input from IIED. GIZ believes that artisanal and small-scale mining, or ASM, can be transformed into a source of local sustainable development. They have set up a series of pilot projects to test solutions to some of the most pressing problems related to informal ASM in Madagascar. The projects were designed with local communities, who determined what they needed most.

We travelled to the Sakaraha region in the southwest of the island, where the sapphire rush started, and where GIZ has been working with miners, farmers, women’s groups and local authorities in several rural communities.

In the early 2000s, the town of Sakaraha became the biggest gem-trading centre in Madagascar. The town sprang out of nowhere: a few years earlier it didn't exist. By 2017, it boasts a population of 120,000, which includes people living in the vicinity – most of whom depend on gemstone mining and trade, directly or indirectly.

With less than 75 days of rain a year – the lowest average in Madagascar – the region where Sakaraha is located is not home to rainforests or world-renowned species. But it possesses several endemic species of trees, birds and other wildlife, as well as many protected areas. Local people use many endemic plants for medicinal purposes (PDF).

Miners clear forest areas to set up sites and use wood for their operations and shelters

Miners clear forest areas to set up sites and use wood for their operations and shelters

While most of the individuals we met are not miners, their lives have been nonetheless deeply affected by artisanal gemstone mining. They have to deal with the environmental degradation of their local forests, with mines left abandoned in their villages, and with the sad reality that the wealth created in their region has not trickled down to the poorest.

“People want to do more reforesting”

Artisanal mining is one of the major drivers of deforestation in Madagascar. Trees and other vegetation have to be cleared so miners can start digging in search of sapphires or other minerals. The wood from these and other trees, as well as that of smaller shrubs, is chopped and used to buttress mine shafts and to make tools such as hammers and spades. 

As the new camps quickly expand, their inhabitants look for easy supplies of wood for shelter and fuel. Often miners and communities resort to cutting down trees in protected areas to meet their need for energy sources. One part-time miner, François Rafila, was concerned with the mistrust with which the government – especially environmental authorities – saw artisanal miners. François's home village of Bekily and other areas in the Ambinany commune have seen relentless bouts of sapphire mining over the last decade, which have left a trail of environmental degradation.


"The environment is my passion. I love green," says François

François, 50, decided to set up a community association in 2008 to protect the environment from the effects of artisanal mining. As he had some experience working in tree farming, François decided to put his knowledge to use and focused the association on reforesting areas left barren by sapphire mining.

Madagascan associations were traditionally set up by groups of people wishing to work together on projects that benefit their communities, or a particular cause. Though subdued during French colonial times, associations today play an important part in village life. They can provide a legitimate channel for partnering with local communities, and for communities to continue a project when foreign or other funding ends.

0:12 Footage captured by a drone shows a clear distinction between land damaged by mining and land that has been rehabilitated and reforested by local communities

François's association can now claim a forest spanning ten hectares of land previously used for mining on the outskirts of Bekily. This new forest stands where abandoned pits and shafts used to cause havoc only two years ago.

Since early 2016 François, his association partners and other villagers have been refilling pits, rehabilitating land and planting trees. "The environment is my passion. I love green," says François, adding that he spends a lot of his time watching the plants, noticing their growth and checking how they're progressing. "If our plants do well then that's good for us and for all of Madagascar. This is about our legacy to the next generation."

The contrast between this new forest and areas that have not been rehabilitated is stark. The forest has thriving rosewood, moringa and eucalyptus trees, while just a few metres away there are large patches of dry land pockmarked with deep holes.

"We want to become a model for other communities," explains François. "We try to make the community learn to love the environment and take care of it."

Through his work, the people of Bekily and several other neighbouring villages are more aware of the harmful environmental legacy of mining and are willing to grab a shovel to remedy it. François also reports that the villagers used to take wood from the national park but this has changed thanks to the work of the association, which now has 400 members.

"The main change is that all villagers who pass by the rehabilitated areas keep an eye on the plants. If something happens, they let someone know," he adds. "People want to do more reforesting."

Rosewood, moringa and eucalyptus trees now grow on land that was once barren and pockmarked with holes

Rosewood, moringa and eucalyptus trees now grow on land that was once barren and pockmarked with holes

François has also set up a local enterprise to meet the increasing local appetite for trees and plants in former ASM areas. He runs a nursery in Bekily that produces around 10,000 plants each year. These are sold to schools, churches and farms across the Sakaraha region. The nursery also counts Madagascar National Parks among its clients.

Francois has ten children. "I would love my children to take over," he says. "Running a nursery can make money and provide a decent living. They like the idea of following on the work started by their father."

“We needed to protect our children”

Communities in sapphire-rich areas can find themselves, almost overnight, surrounded by busy mining camps where hundreds of workers set up makeshift operations to extract, wash and sort rough sapphires. When these new neighbours hear rumours of a new, richer deposit, they just as quickly pack up their tools and belongings and depart, almost always leaving their sites in a hazardous state.

Unfilled pits are often left behind in areas regularly used by villagers. These pits can be up to 50 metres deep. Even attentive locals can fall in, when rain or vegetation make unexpected holes hard to see. Local people raise goats to supplement their incomes in this dry arid region. The animals can fall into abandoned pits and die. Losing livestock in this way damages the villagers' already meagre livelihoods.

Critically, abandoned pits pose a major danger for children when playing or walking to and from school, as described by Joeline Edwige, who is married to François and leads the village's women's association.

Children play in areas near abandoned pits

Children play in areas near abandoned pits

There's a field behind our homes and the children were playing football there. The ball fell inside a hole and a little boy went in to retrieve it. He passed out because there was [natural] gas in there.

She added: "I knew right there that we had to do something. We needed to protect our children."

Joeline Edwige

Joeline Edwige leads the women's association in the village of Bekily

Bekily, Joeline's village, is surrounded by numerous abandoned sapphire mine shafts. "It was a shock and a wake-up call for the whole community," says Joeline.

The women's association has 29 members. For two months, each member dedicated one full day each week to rehabilitating the land, filling scores of holes ranging from 18 to 25 metres deep and approximately one metre in diameter.

0:13 Drone footage shows the numerous abandoned mine shafts dotting the landscape

Persuading her association partners, most of whom are not miners, to devote their time to clean up mines was not easy. "I had to start by making them aware of what was happening. Even if we didn't create the problem, we had to fix it," says Joeline, who is a mother of eight and runs a grocery store in the village.

"Many of our members agreed to help with the work. Others didn't, but still helped because they're members of the association. They complained – but as they did the work they changed their minds."

Joeline and Francois

Joeline and Francois have eight children. She runs a grocery store in the village

They persuaded others to join them and soon the whole village was involved in the rehabilitation of former sapphire mines in the vicinity. The women also planted trees on the former mine sites, and continue to look after them.

I like to see the plants growing, but the reward is the safety of the children.

– Joeline Edwige

“An animal without a head cannot walk”

Tensions between artisanal miners and their governments are not uncommon. There is little trust between them, and little knowledge of what each side needs. Many miners operate informally, and fear that the authorities will try to shut them down. On the other hand, many authorities see ASM as a problem – especially an environmental problem – which does not contribute to their coffers and needs to be got rid of.

Célin Eugène Randrianomejanahary, 42, was elected two years ago as the mayor of Bekily Ambinany, a rural commune of 14,000 inhabitants. Each day, he travels on his green-and-white motorbike to visit the many villages spread across the large commune under his care, including Bekily, where he lives. A miner himself, Célin Eugène moved to the area from northern Madagascar hoping to benefit from the sapphire rush.

Célin Eugène Randrianomejanahary, mayor of the rural commune of Bekily Ambinany

Two years ago, Célin Eugène Randrianomejanahary became the mayor the rural commune of Bekily Ambinany

He knows that, if done responsibly, ASM can lift people out of poverty and is quick to talk about the relationship between ASM and the improvements that he, as mayor, wants to achieve for the communities that elected him. He says that bettering the ASM sector has to start with the environment, and has run a series of awareness-raising workshops for the nine associations in his commune.

"It's working, but little by little," he says. "People are slowly becoming more interested in the environment and talking about it more."

Célin Eugène regularly meets with the mayors of other rural communes in the Sakaraha region. They share experiences, support each other and coordinate their participation in the national dialogue process convened by GIZ together with Madagascar's Ministry of Mines and Petroleum. The partners set out to start the dialogue process from the bottom up. Local committees, comprising authorities, miners and civil society groups, were set up to work together, or as constituencies, to guide the work and oversee projects.

IIED attended a meeting of 20 mayors and other local leaders from the region. The camaraderie, broadly based on the similarities in their respective agendas, was remarkable.

Mayors of rural communes rural communes in the Sakaraha region meet regularly to discuss their concerns. There is a strong sense of camaraderie as they share their respective agendas

Mayors of rural communes rural communes in the Sakaraha region meet regularly to discuss their concerns

"We all need to do something about scams and abandoned sites," says Célin Eugène. "And formalisation and regulation too, but we are starting by working with associations on training. We are starting with the communities."

He joined Bekily's residents in the hard work of refilling abandoned mine shafts that was initiated by Joeline and the women's association. He too dedicated one day a week for two months to this task.

Célin Eugène knew that he needed to join the work to show that he was putting into practice what he urged the community to do in his training sessions. It is a question of leadership: "'An animal without a head cannot walk' is a proverb that we have here in Madagascar," he says.

He shows a photo of himself with a shovel and a wheelbarrow: he too is doing his part. "We are trying to make people aware of environmental regulations and what is expected of miners and communities," Célin Eugène says.

“I have come to the training so I can stop being scammed”

Despite its immense deposits of high-quality gemstones, Madagascan mining communities do not always benefit from this wealth. Many gemstone buyers do not pay the miners fair prices. Unscrupulous traders can act with impunity because miners have little expertise and the gemstone market is unregulated. Even when miners know the worth of their stones, if they are desperate enough, they will sell them for a fraction of their market value.

Jocelyne Dalo, 57, lives in the village of Mahaboboka, and has been working in sapphire mines for the last 14 years. She used to work cultivating rice, but, as she got older, the physical demands of farming became increasingly taxing. Though her husband works and most of her children are grown, she still needs to find additional income for her household.

Many years ago I would exchange a large sapphire for a coffee or a plate of food

– Jocelyne Dalo
Jocelyne Dalo

Jocelyne Dalo, 57, has been washing sapphires for 14 years but she has earned very little

Jocelyne hoped that washing rough sapphires in the local river would become a source of much-needed extra cash. But she has not made much money from sapphires over the past decade and a half. Jocelyne does not know sapphire prices, or how to assess the quality of the stones – vital knowledge that could help her to negotiate a better price. She always depends on what buyers say.

"I have come to the training so I can stop being scammed," says Jocelyne during a break from a training workshop on basic gemmology. "The people we work with scam us because they know that we don't know anything about the price of the stones. Now I'm starting to understand and learn how to identify them."

Jocelyne inspecting a gemstone

Jocelyne hopes that training will help her negotiate more effectively with buyers

The training comes at a good time for Jocelyne. Because she has not earned enough from sapphires, she has continued to farm and sell coffee, maize and rice – even against the doctor's orders. She wants to dedicate more time to working with sapphires because she knows that her poor health will make it hard to earn much from farming.

"When they tell me that my stones aren't sapphires, I will be able to say that yes they are," she says.

Eric Rakotoson ran the session that Jocelyne and another 24 miners attended in Mahaboboka. Eric is a trainer with the Institute of Gemmology of Madagascar (IGM), which organised the training along with GIZ. IGM is the first African institute dedicated to gemmologySet up as part of a World Bank programme (PDF), it promotes research and technology development, as well as training through gemmology and lapidary, or stone cutting, schools.

Eric Rakotoson runs training workshops for miners

Eric Rakotoson runs training workshops for miners

According to Eric, artisanal miners need to know that there are other stones that have value and can be sold. "When I started yesterday, I could see that they only work with sapphires but there are also other stones they can sell. They find lots of beautiful garnets and topaz, but since they are not sapphires they throw them away," he says.

But a key barrier remains finding the right buyer.

"In Sakaraha buyers are almost always only interested in sapphires. They [artisanal miners] need to know where the buyers of others stones are," says Eric. "In Tana [Antananarivo], there are people who search for garnets and topaz."

He adds that better and fairer markets are required: "We need to create connections between buyers and these small producers."

As Eric resumes the training session, participants listen attentively and jot down notes. It is evident that the information they are receiving will be useful to them straight away.

Over the course of two days, they learn how to identify stones using a magnifying glass and a dichroscope, a tool used to distinguish the colours of gems. This instrument is especially useful as it enables miners who master it to distinguish gemstones from artificial stones. This may not be needed during the mining process, but is part of becoming a well-rounded gemstone professional.

A geologist by profession, Eric is a self-professed gemstone enthusiast: "I love stones, and if there are stones, I go there," he says, referring to the journeys he makes to remote areas with gemstone deposits in order to run training sessions. "I love their beauty. They're my passion."

However, his students need more than training; they lack the basic tools they need to assess gemstones and, unfortunately, the workshop participants cannot keep the tools they have learned to use.

The tools to assess gemstones are simple but essential

The tools to assess gemstones are simple but essential

"They ask if they can keep the tools because they need their own to assess their stones," adds Eric. "They need a torch to see the purity of their stones. It can't be seen with the naked eye. They also need a magnifying glass to see a stone's details."

“Money is not as important as when people like the jewellery I make”

Most people in Madagascar's ASM gemstone sector are involved in mining, washing and sorting stones, but very seldom do they put the stones to other productive – or creative – uses.

Hanita Razafiasimbola

Hanita Razafiasimbola is 29. She travelled 300km with her two sons to find new life in the sapphire mining region

Hanita Razafiasimbola, 29, has two boys, aged eight and five. In 2013, she separated from her husband and moved 300 kilometres to Ilakaka with her children in search of a new life.

Last year, Hanita attended a jewellery-making workshop "just to try something new".

The workshop was a revelation. "Something happened in me when I began to work with the stones and had to choose the colour of the stone I was going to put in a necklace," says Hanita. "The yellow and orange reminded me of the sun setting and I felt very happy," she adds, describing the round piece of jasper she used in one of her first creations.

Hanita is adamant that she has found her vocation. "Money is not as important as when people like the jewellery I make." She gently describes how the semi-precious stones she uses in her jewellery make her think of nature – of Madagascan plants and of afternoon landscapes. She says the word 'creative', quietly, as if she were not allowed to use it to describe herself.

This year she has begun to train other women to make jewellery. "Sometimes it's difficult because many of the women are older than me, or their hands shake and they struggle with the tools," says Hanita. "But I love to spend time with them. It's like having several mothers and sisters."

Hanita is training other women to cut stones and make jewellery (Photo: GIZ)

Hanita is training other women to cut stones and make jewellery (Photo: GIZ Madagascar)

The Ilakaka women's association hosted the training and set up a custom jewellery shop, on the same road where buyers have their sapphire shops. Some months ago, the shop was robbed and most of their pieces and equipment were taken. They have also been disappointed with the sales ever since they opened the shop. Because of this, making a living from her jewellery alone is still not possible, and Hanita continues to work as a maid to make ends meet. While some of her association colleagues are despondent, none of this dampens Hanita's spirits.

Hanita displays some of the jewellery she has made (Photo: GIZ Madagascar)

Hanita displays some of the jewellery she has made (Photo: GIZ Madagascar)

"I love being part of an association," says Hanita. "It's about having good relationships with other people and doing things together. It's been good for me. Learning how to make jewellery but also to meet other women and spend time with them."


Artisanal sapphire sites in southern Madagascar operate unsafely and under very difficult conditions. And their impact on the environment and on communities is mostly detrimental. Yet these rural communities in Sakaraha have taken charge of the situation on their own terms. Some individuals have even managed to find new talents and vocations as foresters and jewellery designers.

They found new ways – locally made – to unlock the potential of ASM to drive sustainable development in their communities, whether by turning land rehabilitation into an opportunity to create a forest, learning new skills, or by exploring new interests, even if all of them have yet to reap financial benefits. Their experiences suggest new ways of thinking about how communities could benefit from mineral wealth in their countries, beyond the usual jargon of economic linkages, local content or corporate responsibility.

The economic potential of ASM is clear: artisanal mining of gemstones, gold and other minerals provides around half a million jobs in a country of about 25 million people. But harnessing this potential requires confronting a web of problems affecting the lives of many people beyond miners and their families.

In the dialogue process, GIZ started from the bottom up. They worked with miners and, crucially, with community associations, looking at the wider issues at the local level.

Pilot projects flourished, showing that a responsible attitude to artisanal mining can bring more to communities than income and employment. For some, turning a wrong, such as environmental degradation, into a right – reforested, safer areas – led to self-realisation and a more tranquil community life. For others, learning about gemstones and jewellery led to discovering their creative selves and to the dignity of knowing the worth of their labour.

While formalisation and regulation of ASM is essential, we must learn from local communities and what they think is best for them.

Interviews and writing by Gabriela Flores

Photos by Dina Rafanomezantsoa / Ymagoo (unless otherwise stated)

Also in this series of long reads