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Ilakaka. Glitter and poverty of a Cursed Land

ILAKAKA, is a land awash in superstition - of witches and reincarnation. In contrast to the verdant rolling hills of northern and central Madagascar, large swaths of the southern plains are arid and prone to food shortages. Ilakaka is a small town along Route National 7, the main road linking the capital city Antananarivo to the port of Toliara. Twenty years ago, Ilakaka practically didn’t exist with barely 40 residents. Ilakaka was little more than a truck stop with a small collection of huts.

Every so often, however, the gods do smile on this forbidding land. Until 1998 Ilakaka was home to a handful of houses, then came the gemstone boom and this sleepy hamlet became the sapphire capital of the world supplying nearly 50% of all the sapphires in the world.

Despite the economic boom, Ilakaka never developed further than a shanty town where poor families dwell in tiny wooden houses. Most of the workers here had come with the intention of striking it rich and heading back to their home villages but ended up getting trapped in the system where Malagasy workers are exploited by the Thais and Sri Lankan merchants. There are large number of illegal miners operating in Ilakaka who smuggle large amounts of gems out of the country. There is little law and order despite the presence of a police force.

The surrounding terrain is like a Swiss cheese moonscape. The holes - 10 or 15 meters deep, where prospectors once burrowed—easily outnumber trees. 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.

The story of today’s Ilakaka begins in the early 1990s. The first significant discoveries of gemstones came in northern Madagascar, fueling waves of migration to the fringes of its vast forests. Meanwhile, in the south, a smaller number of prospectors were collecting garnets to sell to foreign dealers. One batch from Ilakaka, a sharp-eyed buyer noticed, were not garnets at all, but something exponentially more lucrative: pink sapphire.

Word spread quickly. Within a year thousands of ramshackle tenements sprawled on either side of National Route 7. Tom Cushman, a sailor-mouthed American gem dealer who’d first come to Madagascar in 1991, was one of the first to set up shop in Ilakaka. «I was down there in September [1998] and there were only about five of us buying. Buying out of our cars. There was no town» Cushman recalls. The vibe, he says, was 1849 Sacramento Valley. By early 1999, according to Cushman, there were tens of thousands of people seeking their fortunes. By late 1999 there were 100,000.

Cushman tried to spend at least $1,000 a day. The selection was endless - the deep blue sapphires international buyers lusted over were everywhere, alongside pinks, yellows, and rubies. Once the Thais and Sri Lankans, masters of the sapphire trade, arrived, as much as $2 million a week was changing hands. Virtually overnight this sleepy hamlet became the sapphire capital of the world. Anywhere from a third to half of the world’s sapphire production poured out of its once fallow soils. The myth of Ilakaka grew as fast as its population, drawn by the romance of a frontier town. Fantastic fortunes could be made with one lucky plant of a shovel. In a country where more than 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, single stones were being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The town leaves an underwhelming first impression: One drab gem dealership after the next lines a mile-long stretch of Route 7 - Azmi Gems, Tonga Soa Siya Gems, La Terrasse Gems, New Sahara Alex Saphir. Inside, foreign dealers sit bored at their desks, waiting for the next miner or middleman to present the morning’s haul for inspection.

It’s immediately apparent that Ilakaka has fallen on hard times. Big stones are few and far between. The low-hanging fruit in the town proper has all been snatched up; miners must walk miles in search of untapped reserves. For three months, the dealers say, almost nothing worth touching has passed through their doors. The problem, says Jean Florent Ramonja, a security guard, is too a lot of vazaha - foreigners. «There will always be business here» he says, gesturing at the dozens of shops that now comprise something of a trading hub for sapphires from across the region.

Boomtowns don’t last forever. Yet some boom bigger and longer and with greater rewards. Ilakaka has enjoyed a run the likes of which most Malagasy towns can only envy. 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.

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 says. «We suffer, so we have to stay to find more sapphire» he adds that there may be gold to be found in the not-too-distant future.

Ilakaka thinks it’s going to get better. And it will.

Watch more photos about Ilakaka here.