by Jack Caldwell

A summary of an article from the New Yorker, October 2, 2006:

Burkhard Bilger writes about the gem industry in Madagascar, which has some of the richest, and least exploited, gem deposits on earth (“The Path of Stones,” p. 66). Tom Cushman, an American who realized the potential of Madagascar’s gem industry before the sapphire and ruby rushes there in the late nineties, and who has worked at nearly every level of the trade, tells Bilger, “Practically the whole island is gemmiferous. If you fall out of an airplane, land on the ground, and start digging, you’re going to find something.” Of Madagascar’s precious stones, Bilger writes, “There were rubies as red as those in Sri Lanka, garnets as green as those in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, and some stones, like flaming-pink pezzottaite, that could be found almost nowhere else.” What makes Madagascar so attractive to people like Cushman is that its gem supply is both easily accessible and virtually untapped. Bilger writes that a stone’s price depends on many qualities, most notably its beauty, rarity, and durability, but also its clarity, its color, its brittleness, the number of jewels that can be cut from it, and, more recently, the way it will respond to special refining procedures.

Cushman, who arrived in Madagascar in 1991, tells Bilger that he relished the country’s “Wild West” atmosphere. He says, “It’s great. There’s murder, claim-jumping, sex, violence, scandal, corruption.” Of the danger, Cushman adds, “In four days, I watched three rookies get robbed of between thirty and fifty thousand dollars each. Just pop, pop, pop. You could hear gunfire every night.” For most miners, Bilger writes, the rewards were worth the risk. “Digging for sapphires was three to five times as profitable as farming, and the money worked its way through the community.” For a country stricken by poverty, mining provided significant opportunities for the Malagasy. Bilger writes, “Much of the land was publicly owned and the sapphires lay close to the surface, available to anyone who filed a claim.” Though Cushman didn’t have the greatest luck when it came to mining, others struck large deposits. “All told,” Bilger writes, “about half a million Malagasy made some income off mining.”

At the same time, he adds, “No one was better at mining the miners than the foreign dealers. Cushman paid about thirty dollars a carat for large, good-quality rough in Ilakaka, then cut and sold it for three or four times that price in Asia or the United States.” Though his profit far exceeded that of most Malagasy workers (in a good year, he might make a hundred thousand dollars), Cushman tells Bilger that he has no patience with those who called his work exploitation: “You come down to Madagascar and live the way I live, take the risks that I take, take the shit I take, and tell me it ain’t fair.” He does, however, concede that the Malagasy will have a difficult time digging themselves out of poverty if the current structure of the industry stays the same. Bilger writes, “To build a true gem industry, they had to learn to cut, treat, and sell stones directly to wholesalers---.” Cushman himself is in many ways spearheading the country’s effort to educate its native population: in 2002, backed by the country’s first truly elected democratic government in thirty years, he was hired to help open a gemology school.

A Blog somewhere in the ether has this Haiku on the article:

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: The Path of Stones
Burkhard Bilger

Madagascar's gems:
Riches in the jungle bring
Both wealth and chaos.

New on InfoMine is a site on mining in Madagascar. A paper in our library with the usual dull tone says: “Madgascar is one of the world’s leading producers of sapphire, mainly extracted by artisanal miners at Ilakaka and Sakara in the south-central part of the country. Exports of these precious stones stood at around six tonnes in 2004.” For the true story, read the New Yorker article.

Another of the papers in our library, one of those papers compiled by editing press releases, talks of Pan African Mining Corporation’s exploration in Madagascar—no success to date.

A relatively informative summary is at MBendi: “Madagascar does not have a well-developed mineral industry, although there is vast potential to discover and develop new deposits. Excluding gold and gem production by artisanal miners, mining makes up less than 1% of GDP (3% when the informal sector is counted) and employs just 1% of the workforce. Madagascar is noted for its production of good quality chemical and metallurgical grade chromite, high-grade crystalline flake graphite, mica and semi precious stones. The country has the world’s largest reserves of sapphires and is also the world’s tenth largest producer of chromite. However, the island has other deposits containing gold, nickel, cobalt, heavy mineral sands, bauxite, coal and petroleum products. Madagascar's coal potential has been estimated to contain as much as 100 Mt of good quality coal. Here resources are located in the southwestern parts of the country, but the location and poor infrastructure of the region has been a deterrent. In order to develop these numerous possibilities, the country’s infrastructure will need to be seriously upgraded and developed. The geology of the island has only recently been studied in any great detail. Similarities exist with that of Mozambique and Sri Lanka. Madagascar has identified deposits of bauxite, uranium, quartz, copper, lead, labradorite, rock-crystal, hodolite and marble. There are also known deposits containing 400 Mt of iron ore, and resources of coal at Sakoa in the southeast of the island where the total resource is probably in excess of 500 Mt.”

Roll on the true story of mining: the results of the activities of average human beings doing extraordinary things.