Madagascar’s sapphire frontier town: The hard life in pursuit of gemstones.

Droughts. Bandits. Locusts. Inside the Boom and Bust of a Madagascar Frontier Town.

Droughts. Bandits. Locusts. Inside the Boom and Bust of a Madagascar Frontier Town.

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Feb. 14 2014 11:37 AM

A Cursed Land

Droughts. Bandits. Locusts. Inside the boom and bust of a Madagascar frontier town.

(Continued from Page 1)

Boomtowns don’t last forever. Yet some boom bigger and longer and with greater rewards. Some, the anthropologist Andrew Walsh points out, become San Francisco. Ilakaka has enjoyed a run the likes of which most Malagasy towns can only envy. But it’s also suffered from the notorious corruption and dysfunction of Madagascar’s political class. Most recently there was the personal rift between two egomaniacal tycoons—one the former president, Marc Ravalomanana, who made his fortune in dairy; the other the then-mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, an advertising giant—that escalated into the coup in 2009. Foreign aid, previously 40 percent of the state budget, was slashed. Investment disappeared and poverty skyrocketed. Meanwhile, Madagascar’s elites—widely believed to be involved in various rackets ranging from minerals to rosewood to rare tortoises—have fared just fine. Madagascar is not Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, one Western official in Antananarivo told me, but there are some striking similarities.

Ilakaka’s problems with the government began almost instantly. First, dictator-turned-president Didier Ratsiraka choked off most legal exports in the early years of the boom. His successor, Ravalomanana, initially eased restrictions. Then in 2008, in what Cushman describes as “a fit of pique” over one controversially exported stone, Ravalomanana banned all rough gemstone exports. An industry worth $30 million a year shriveled to $300,000.

Ravalomanana’s successor, Rajoelina, lifted the ban in 2010 and world demand for high-end sapphires has roared back to life since the global financial crisis. But Ilakaka looks unlikely to enjoy a similar recovery. Its population is down to roughly 30,000. Despite Madagascar’s mineral wealth—ranging from gemstones to nickel to iron—foreign investment throughout the mining sector has tailed off dramatically since the coup.


Some Ilakaka residents have clearly done well, others less so. Satellite dishes dot the main residential areas, and construction crews seem busy replacing wood shacks with brick-and-mortar outfits in the town center. But biting poverty remains the norm. Ilakaka’s local chief, Nestor Razanapanarivo, predicts the town’s population will soon double but concedes that the number of beggars has soared.

Augustin Andriamanajary's house in Ilakaka.
Augustin Andriamanajary's house in Ilakaka.

Photo courtesy Rijasolo

Early one morning, we meet Augustin Andriamanajary, who lives with his wife and two sons in a one-room, one-mattress hut resembling a prison cell. Andriamanajary, who is 34 with a face weathered by years in the sapphire quarries, first came to Ilakaka in 2001. Back then, he says, he sometimes earned more than $10 a day. “Before, it was better, but now there’s nothing.” Six days a week, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., he and eight of his neighbors toil in a quarry several miles west of town. They haven’t found any stones in at least two or three months, he tells me. I ask him why he stays. His answer suggests both an abundance of hope and a dearth of alternatives. “We suffer, so we have to stay to find more sapphire,” he replies. He adds that there may be gold to be found in the not-too-distant future.

One of Andriamanajary's colleagues carries the rope that will lower him deep into the quarry.
One of Andriamanajary's colleagues carries the rope that will lower him deep into the quarry.

Photo courtesy Rijasolo

The miners set out on foot for the quarry. One man carries a long yellow rope, a small rock pick, and a plastic bucket. Andriamanajary’s 11-year-old son, Solo, has a rusted silver hand shovel. They walk in silence, single-file along the narrow path. The surrounding terrain is like a Swiss cheese moonscape. The holes—10 or 15 meters deep, where prospectors once burrowed—easily outnumber trees.

Augustin Andriamanajary and his 11-year-old son, Solo, en route to the quarry.
Andriamanajary and his 11-year-old son, Solo, en route to the quarry.

Photo courtesy Rijasolo

An hour later we arrive at a giant crater—perhaps 25 meters in diameter and 10 meters deep. The miners first found this spot in 2007. Back then there were 17 of them and an Indian boss who funded the digging. Now their numbers are down to nine, ranging in age from 11 to 56 years old. At the far end of the quarry is a nearly 20-meter-deep hole, just wide enough for Andriamanajary to squeeze through as he is lowered by a wooden crank pulley. From the bottom, he starts loading the bucket with dirt from the walls of an adjacent tunnel and sending it back up to the surface to be sifted. Each miner spends four hours underground before being relieved.

The work is dangerous. Holes often collapse without warning. All the mining in Ilakaka is done manually. Even the big commercial mines—known as the Swiss Bank, World Bank, and African Bank—rely on little more than shovel labor. For stones so small, investments in heavy machinery don’t make much financial sense.

Andriamanajary working in the quarry.
Andriamanajary working in the quarry.

Photo courtesy Rijasolo

After a couple of hours, Rija and I must head out. Andriamanajary, every inch of his wafer-thin frame caked in red soil, comes up to bid us farewell. We drive back toward town. I find myself marveling at the hopefulness of Andriamanajary and the other miners we’ve met. Almost everyone has been here 12 or 13 years. They have not struck it rich. Their lives are not substantially better than those they left behind. They live at the mercy of an international jewelry market whose whims even industry experts struggle to explain. Yet their belief that better days lie ahead feels, for better or worse, boundless. “I think there will be sapphire [in Ilakaka] for another 100 years!” Razanapanarivo, the local chief, exclaims when I ask about the town’s waning reserves.

Cushman, who now heads a consultancy for foreign investors in Antananarivo, finds hope in Ilakaka’s example. “The guys in Ilakaka are looking at the future,” he says. “And most of the other people in the country are looking at the past. So if you want to develop a managerial class, you would do well to start with those guys in Ilakaka because they’ve got initiative, they’ve got drive, hope. They’ve got future expectations. Most everyone else who lives in the bush in the south—they expect things to get worse. Because it’s always gotten worse. … But Ilakaka thinks it’s going to get better. And it will.”

On Jan. 25, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the winner of the December presidential runoff, was sworn into office. Expectations are mixed. Though the transition is predicted to accelerate the flow of aid, it’s not clear how much will change. Rajaonarimampianina is the handpicked successor of Rajoelina, the coup leader; hours after his inauguration, a grenade exploded outside the stadium where he was sworn in.

On a Sunday afternoon in Ilakaka, Rija and I drop in on a service at a local Pentecostal church. From our hotel, the pastor’s thunderous shouting sounds as though an exorcism is in process. In fact, he is soliciting contributions to build a new church. He complains that the donations are inadequate. “This is why you have to work for Jesus,” he implores. We try to enter inconspicuously through the back door, but all eyes turn our way anyway.

The pastor interrupts his pitch. He declares that God has sent us. Cries of “Hallelujah!” ring out all around. I don’t have the Malagasy to correct him. Nor do I really want to. There are worse things than too much faith.

Rijasolo is a photojournalist based in Madagascar. He is a stringer for Agence France-Presse and has collaborated with Libération, Le Monde, VSD, and Jeune Afrique.

This article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Aaron Ross writes about Africa and the Middle East. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, GlobalPost, and Mother Jones.