Ilakaka is a small village in Southwest Madagascar along Route Nationale 7 (RN7). Twenty years ago, nobody knew about this sleepy little town. But, in less than ten years, the population rose to 60,000! Why? People from all over the world came in search of hot pink sapphire. Learn how mining over the past 20 years is transforming Ilakaka.

Highway stretching through the desert.

Route Nationale 7 stretches across the landscape.

Ilakaka and the Discovery of Hot Pink Sapphire

Before finding sapphire in the 1990s, Ilakaka was just a quiet rural village. It was a spot along Route Nationale 7, a road that connects the capital Antananarivo to the port of Toliara. With a population of around 40 people and a just a handful of homes, the area was nothing but scrubland of little interest.

Today, Ilakaka is a focal point of world sapphire mining. Things have changed a lot over the past 20 years, both for the people and the natural habitat.

In 1998, new sapphire deposits turned Ilakaka into a bustling mining hub. An influx of eager prospectors is responsible for transforming this empty village into a bustling boomtown. With high hopes, people from all over the world travel to this small city seeking fortune. At its height, over 100,000 miners, stone traders, and other hopefuls made it their home.

Within a year, thousands of makeshift homes sprang up. These soils would produce anywhere from one third to one half of world sapphire production. News of the deposits spread even faster, driving more and more people to town.

One lucky thrust of a shovel could make you a fortune. In a country where 75 percent of the population lives on less than USD 1.90 per day, tiny pink stones were being sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Miners extracting sapphire.

Workers often use simple pit and pulley systems when mining.

Mining in Ilakaka: Then and Now

The mining area covers about 4000 square kilometers. Sapphire mining first began near the Ilakaka river basin, slowly spreading along a belt between Ilakaka to Sakaraha. Today, most mining occurs around the Ilakaka–Sakaraha highway.

In the early days, high-quality sapphires were easily found in loose rock, and heavy machinery was not required for removing gems. Anyone with picks and shovels could dig holes in the land and reach the stones, washing them in the nearby river.

Over the last 20 years, easy access and illegal mining spread across the village, creating dangerous holes and forcing miners to hunt in knee-deep red clay. In some places, miners were using makeshift mining practices by digging pits and using a simple pulley system. Once reaching the bottom of the pit, miners use hand tools to extract the exposed pink sapphire. These holes are dug less than a meter in diameter to lower the chances of collapse.

After this first rush of heavy mining, sapphire reserves were quickly spent, leaving locals and foreigners to work in risky conditions for little gain. People lost their lives due to the sudden collapse of holes or dangerous gases in sapphire pits.

Over 4500 kilograms of sapphire went into the market after its original discovery. By 2005 Ilakaka was producing around 50 percent of total sapphire worldwide. With abundant quantities of pink sapphire, miners were also finding sapphires in blue, violet, orange, and yellow colors.

Pink sapphire put Ilakaka on the map. This hot pink jewel quickly became known for its rosy color and high luster. Its feminine and delicate nature makes it a preferred choice for those who want a fun twist on the classic blue brilliance of sapphire.

Hot pink sapphire ring in gold.

How Sapphire Mining Improves the Economy

Reports tell us that the sapphire rush was responsible for extensive damage to the country’s rainforests and nature preserves.

In 2003, new policies were introduced to reform gem mining and reduce illegal mining and exports. These new systems would limit environmental damage by controlling gem rushes and imposing bans on gem mining in national parks.

However, in March 2009, the ban on gemstone exports was lifted. Citing the impact of the 19-month ban, the government reported losses of 39 million in income. This severely affected the livelihood of more than 100,000 miners.

Mining plays a crucial role in the economies of Ilakaka and other areas where sapphire occurs. Today, about 150,000 households depend on gemstone mining to survive. Partnership with foreign export companies contributes to better structuring of mining and exports from Madagascar, giving this glowing gem a bright future!

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