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