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A Sapphire Rush in Madagascar Is Destroying One of the World’s Most Important Rainforests

Man-made climate change is killing coral around the world’s oceans. Elephants have been poached to near endangerment for their tusks. Now, man’s insatiable desire for profit has driven miners deep into Madagascar’s rainforests in search of sapphires, and one of the world’s most important ecosystems is at risk.

Madagascar produces about half of the world’s sapphires. Since the discovery of more high-quality gems last September, miners, primarily from Sri Lanka, are pouring into the area around the town of Bemainty in the Didy region, which sits in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor (CAZ), a 910,000-acre protected area in Madagascar’s eastern rainforests.

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In order to build the illegal shallow-pit mines, tens of thousands of miners have cut down thousands of acres of forest in the protected area, the Guardian reports. After extracting gravel from the earth, workers run it through nearby water sources and search for sapphires.

While deforestation is detrimental anywhere on the planet, clearing rainforests in Madagascar is particularly harmful to an ecosystem that is a conservationist priority.

Sitting off the east coast of Africa, Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island, and is home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Almost all the species that inhabit the island exist nowhere else on Earth, including 89% of its reptiles, 92% of its mammals and more than 11,000 species of plants.

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Furthermore, because trees naturally filter carbon dioxide, nature parks like CAZ and the neighboring Makira Forest are instrumental in combating climate change.

The island’s iconic lemurs aren’t the only occupants. CAZ is home to 325,000 people whose livelihoods are also being disrupted. Beyond the destruction of wildlife and natural resources, which hurt local populations, communities cannot handle the influx of more occupants.

“Insecurity increases, the cost of living rises, and the education of a generation of kids may be damaged as schools close,” Tokihenintsoa Andrianjohaninarivo, of Conservation International Madagascar, told the Independent. “Water becomes polluted as there are suddenly thousands of new people living in an area with no sanitation facilities.”

The pursuit of sapphires is dangerous for the miners, too. Even with manual filtration systems, they can only remain underground for 30-minute periods due to harmful gases in the mines, as BBC documents.  

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Previously, the Didy region experienced a mining rush in 2012 that ended when the government intervened by arresting and deporting many of the Sri Lankan miners.

Conservation International has called for a military response to curtail the current mining’s destruction, but the group is pessimistic that it will happen. The nation gained independence from France in 1960 but has experienced political turmoil ever since.

“We have made many requests to the government to call the army,” said Bruno Rajaspera, director of projects. “But there are too many influential people that are involved in the trade of the stones. The government doesn’t dare take concrete action.”

The sapphire rush is bad for the miners’ health; it hurts the local communities; it kills wildlife; it destroys the forests and the planet. So why is it happening?

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For a country in which 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, mining is often the only opportunity for employment. Thus, even if government forces do shut down the current rush, it will likely be a short-term measure, lasting only until the next sapphire discovery.

“You have a lot of people who are employed [by mining],” said Vincent Pardieu, a French gemologist who has worked in the area for more than a decade. “Without this discovery they would be in serious trouble. That’s why authorities are not doing anything. They are letting people mine. They don’t want to have 20,000 people starving in town, with no money.”