Going to Madagascar : a journey into ethics

Madagascar exports more than a thousand tons of gemstones a year.

Because at Piat, ethics is a cause close to our heart, we regularly go check by ourselves in what conditions gemstones are mined and exploited on the small African island, whose exportation of sapphires represent more than 40% of the sapphire global market *.

Most precious and semi-precious mining in Madagascar is done on small-scaled, artisanal quarries.
Sahatany Valley, Ibity Commune, is situated about a little more than 15 miles from the regional capital Antsirabe, and was the first place we visited. When we finally reached the villages of Ambatomivarina and Sahatany, after making our way through miles of hills and rice fields, the first thing we noticed was the relative prosperity of the place: the houses are brick-and-mortar houses, with pebbledashed walls and tin roofs. The living standards in this region are higher than in all rural areas taken together. This is partly due to the exploitation of sub-soil resources – the valley’s soil is saturated with gemstones of all sorts – combined with conventional farming of the land.

Liselotte our gem cutter, Ilakaka mines

Old patches of land that used to be dedicated to dry agriculture are now riddled with holes, 20 meters deep each, and piles and piles of excavated red dust, so the place has an eerie resemblance with pictures of planet Mars. Those holes are linked to one other by underground galleries, dug to follow the veins and allow air to circulate. Farmers dig and then sieve the ground with whatever tool they have at hand. No chemical product is used that could have harmful consequences on humans or the environment. As environmental damage seems minimal, the only negative effect is on the landscape, and that is compensated by a significant rise in household revenues for the local population.

Artisanal mines in Ilakaka are deeper (they can be as deep as 25 meters). The risk of collapsing is very high and makes the work life-threatening. However, young Malagasy men are driven by the fantasy of finding a stone of exceptional size and quality that would make them millionaires. Women and children are forbidden to work in the pits but can help with the sieving of the gravel. “Going down gives hope”, said Aina, one of the young miners, “the hope of becoming rich someday, if I work hard enough”.

There are bigger mines in the vicinity of Ilakaka that we also visited. The pattern is similar there too: a big hole is dug to bring the gravel up to the surface where it can be cleansed and sieved for stones. Once the vein is found, the hole is widened to allow easier access to the gem bearing layer. No chemical product is used either, except petrol for the vehicles. The stones are water cleansed and sorted by density. The miners are contracted to work on a weekly or monthly basis, their salary oscillates between 300 000 and one million ariarys per month (the equivalent of 80-260 euros), depending on the position they hold – the minimum wage is 155 000 ariarys, i.e 40 euros per month – to which bonuses can be added, according to the stones they find. The miners can also depend on a “sponsor”, some investor who provides for the material, accommodation and food but in return demands exclusivity on the stones. Working conditions are safer than on a small-scaled artisanal mines but no miner can ever dream of finding the stone that will make them rich. This type of mining proves more popular among miners who need regular wages to provide for their families.

Mine Colorline, Madagascar

One of the issues one is confronted with when considering gemstones mining today in Madagascar is the absence of government official authorization for digging. Because organization is decentralized and informal in Madagascar, a verbal agreement given by the local authorities generally is enough to authorize mining and informing the Ministry of Mining is usually avoided for fear of corruption. Many of those mines are therefore considered illegal worldwide; when the truth is they are bounded by a sort of gentlemen’s agreement. However, in order to export gems one must be able to locate precisely where they come from and formally register them down. If the mine does not feature on the register, the lack of transparency thus generated complicates trade flows and challenges ethics.

According to a study led by the Gemological Institute of Madagascar, miners earn three to nine times more than agricultural workers. A lot of Malagasies choose to work down the mines because they are attracted by the promise of a decent salary. Madagascar is the 4th poorest country in the world: the GDP per capita is $449 (by comparison, the GDP per capita in France is $38 476).

In the many conversations we had with the workers, it appeared that many felt concerned by the notion of ethics but had no idea how they could have a more ethical approach in practice: a most striking example is the lack of material and resources of small-scaled mines, which makes them unable to secure the workplace. And when they are respectful of environmental and social engagements, they do not know how to have it testified.
There are several private business initiatives that are willing to guarantee transparency and traceability in gem supply.
It seems essential to us to raise local suppliers’ awareness of the new environmental and social demands. Piat is committed to apply their own ethics procedure each time they purchase a stone from Madagascar.

*Information collected during the 25th October 2018 Conference “Investing in gemstones: opportunities” held by Andrianirina Rasolonjatovo, Director General of the Gemological Institute of Madagascar.