Even life’s at stake in Mada­gas­car’s sap­phire biz

The Economic Times - - BACK PAGE -

EV­ERY­ONE plays for high stakes in Ilakaka. You can get rich or you can die. Even for ex­pe­ri­enced gam­blers, the odds of get­ting killed are high. This city at the heart of Mada­gas­car’s sap­phire min­ing in­dus­try is es­ti­mated to pro­duce at least 30% of the world’s sap­phires — worth at least $30 mil­lion a year. And in the Wild West lifestyle of shady casi­nos and ban­ditry that swag­gered into town on the tail of the fab­u­lous min­ing wealth, spec­u­la­tors are drop­ping dead at an alarm­ing rate — with up to 30 mur­ders a year in a town of 20,000.

One of this year’s vic­tims was Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Muham­mad Ja­mal Khal­ifa was gunned down in Jan­uary, pre­sum­ably be­cause of his sap­phire busi­ness. The latest vic­tim was a Mada­gas­car busi­ness­man shot dead in Septem­ber whom po­lice iden­ti­fied only by his first name Ernest. He had just bought a sap­phire worth $30,000.

“He was in his ho­tel room at seven in the evening when the ban­dits at­tacked. Bang, bang, bang and it was fin­ished,” said mine owner Jean Noel An­dri­ana­solo. Mada­gas­car, a for­mer French colony set in the In­dian ocean far off Africa’s south­east coast, is one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries — but Ilakaka is boom­ing due to its fa­mous pink and blue sap­phires.

Min­ing con­sul­tant Tom Cush­man said it’s dif­fi­cult to know ex­actly how much money Ilakaka’s sap­phire in­dus­try gen­er­ates be­cause some of the best stones leave the is­land “in peo­ple’s pock­ets.” Big busi­ness has driven de­vel­op­ment. Ten years ago, Ilakaka was no more than a col­lec­tion of huts. Now, since the dis­cov­ery of ma­jor sap­phire de­posits in 1998, it is a thriv­ing town with a riot of makeshift homes and ram­shackle casi­nos, bars and shops which spill onto the road and jos­tle against gleam­ing new of­fices where the gems are bought and sold. — AP/Mada­gas­car

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