East of Africa: Sapphire of Ilakaka

After hours of driving through untouched landscape, a speck of civilization appears on the horizon. It’s a sizable town; modest in structure, but full of activity and commotion -even at a distance.

A patchwork of low-grade wooden structures stem from a single main road. Electrical wires criss cross each other in all directions, connecting small shanty homes with restaurants and makeshift offices with pre-fabricated Zain mobile phone shops.

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The main road is filled with pedestrians. A man with a turkey slung over his back fervently tries to make a sale with a local butcher. Several children pile onto a improvised sled, transporting an oil barrel that’s adorned with a hand painted message in English: “God is Good”. Next to them, three Chinese men in business suits carry large black briefcases into a shiny building that is marked as a gem brokerage.

It feels like we’ve rolled into a strange, Malagasy version of the Wild West, minus the cowboy boots and the saddled horses. This is Ilakaka, population: 30,000, and home to Madagascar’s booming sapphire trade.

As soon as we stop on the side of the road a few hawkers approach us. I try to explain in French that we’re not here to buy anything, but they insist that I come see their shop. Curiosity gets the best of me and I follow them to a small stall where a few men are clutching tiny plastic zipper bags filled with purple and blue stones.

There’s nothing elaborate about the presentation of the stones. They clear a bowl of meat for sale off of the table and empty the contents of the bags for me to inspect. An aging Indian man with a long beard sits behind a metal grille and counts out the prices for the stones. When it’s apparent that I’m really not going to buy anything, the bags get packed away as fast as they were dumped out.

I’m told that the Sri Lankans, Indians, and Thais control most of the gem market here, with a majority of the mining done by poor Malagasy father-son teams. They are lured by the dream of making over $10,000 USD in one find; truly a temping proposition in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

In the past eleven years, Ilakaka has been subject to an expansion that could be compared to California’s gold rush of the 1800′s. Sapphire deposits were discovered in 1998, when only 40 people inhabited the area. Now, 50% of the world’s sapphire comes from Madagascar, and Ilakaka is at the heart of the fever. The current official reports document 30,000 inhabitants, but locals insist that there are closer to 60,000 people in the town…a number that’s hard to track amidst high turnover in workers and unreported children belonging to working families.

Walking further down the road, I notice that the diversity for such a concentrated population is striking. Apparently, each of Madagascar’s 18 ethnic groups are represented in Ilakaka; and businessmen from all over the world come here to buy Malagasy gems. But because of the profitable nature of the business, violence has become prevalent in the rogue town.

The word on the street is that one of Osama bin Laden’s relatives was gunned down last year because of his visible success in sapphire trading. Another victim was shot in his hotel room only months ago while carrying a sapphire worth nearly $25,000. The local police claim to be attempting to control criminal activity, but low salaries and high bribes seem to be getting in the way of any tangible results.

But the violence doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone from coming to Ilakaka just yet. There are bars, brothels, and casinos…plenty of economic activity. But there are no established banks or sources of electricity from the national grid. Most of the shacks that the miners camp out in have no running water or sources of light; which on one hand, is good news for the ToughStuff sales team.

Within an hour, they’ve negotiated several deals and have even captured the interest of some of the wealthy gem brokers. They say that Ilakaka will be a good opportunity for trade and entrepreneurial expansion; undoubtedly a familiar sentiment in this dusty, lawless town.

Catch the previous articles in the East of Africa series!