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October 1, 2008

The sapphire mines of Madagascar

The tiny village of Ilakaka, Madagascar had barely 40 residents before 1998. Then, a large deposit of sapphires was discovered along a nearby riverbed, and caught the eye of some Thai businessmen in the gem trade. Word got out, and Ilakaka swelled to tens of thousands of residents - the center of a sapphire boom, today the source of nearly 50% of all the sapphires in the world. Illegal miners mixed with large-scale operations, all operating under little or no regulation, in a wild-west atmosphere of potential fortunes, lawlesness, violence and hardship. In the years since, the easily-mined sapphire fields have been picked clean, and the remaining miners often work in deep holes, climbing far underground. Mining is also a family effort - according to an official study, of the 21,000 children living in the region, 19,000 belong to working families. (25 photos total)

Miners work in unison on September 13, 2008 as they shovel sand and loose gravel at an open-pit sapphire mine where they work for a daily wage near the southwestern Madagascan town of Ilakaka. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

Miners dig in a sapphire mine on September 12, 2008 near the southwestern Madagascan town of Ilakaka (background). The mushrooming town of Ilakaka, which in October 1998 saw a major influx of illegal miners who came in search of fortune after the discovery of a large sapphire deposit. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Dieudonne Laha, shows precious stones that he found in the past two days after he and others dug out and washed gravel in a nearby river basin in their search for sapphires on September 14, 2008 in Anzanakaro near Ilakaka, Madagascar. The gravel which is dug up from deep holes is washed and strained in the nearby river as the miners scrutinize their rocky crop in search for sapphires. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners finishing their shift at an open sapphire pit mine walk back to their families in the nearby town of Ilakaka, Madagascar (background) on September 12, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

View taken on September 15, 2008 of the mushrooming town of Ilakaka, which in October 1998 saw a major influx of illegal miners who came in search of fortune after the discovery of a large sapphire deposit. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Noushad Hajirwa (left), a tough and knowledgable Sri Lankan gem buyer takes a close look at sapphire stones offered to him by local miners in the Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008. Hajirwa is one of the many Thai and Sri Lankan gem buyers who do business in the town. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

A worker takes a close look at a sapphire at a local precious stone business in the Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008. Local miners in the region work deep narrow holes where they scrape gravel and sand in search of sapphires and fortune. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

A local miner joins others at the window of a precious stone business in Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008 in the hope that a Sri Lankan gem buyer examining his stones will want to buy them. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Four sapphires sit on next to a wad of notes at a local precious stone business on September 13, 2008, where a Sri Lankan gem buyer examines stones that local miners have harvested from deep holes, gravel and sand nearby. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners scramble up the walls of an open-cast sapphire mine, near the Ilakaka, Madagascar at the end of their shift on September 12, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners work in unison to move gravel and sand up a hillside on September 12, 2008 at an open pit sapphire mine near Ilakaka, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Francois Rantonirina, age 10, carries a shovel and a makeshift strainer as he and his mother leave a river basin where they had spent the morning sifting through gravel extracted from the ground in search for Sapphires in Manombo Be, near Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 12, 2008. According to an official Madagascan study, of the 21,000 children living in the region, 19,000 belong to working families. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners working in an open pit sapphire mine near the southwestern Madagascan town of Ilakaka head home, climbing out of the pit at the end of their shift on September 13, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Children of miners are buffeted by flying sand as they play on a hillside near an open pit sapphire mine near Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Two miners work on securing a bag of gravel taken from a deep hole they and others dug near a river basin in their search for sapphires on September 14, 2008 in Anzanakaro near Ilakaka, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

A young miner holds on tight to a rope as he is lowered into a deep hole in the ground in a field in Anzanakaro near Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 14, 2008. Local miners and many of their family members work deep narrow holes where they scrape gravel and sand in search of sapphires. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Five men watch as miners work together to move sand and gravel up the side wall of an open-pit sapphire mine near Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 12, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Mandraisara (right) and her friend Tafitasoaniaina (left) dance as they sing a song heard on a local popular radio station, near mountains of sand and gravel that their parents helped dig out of an open pit sapphire mine near Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners sift gravel in their makeshift strainers in a river basin in their search for sapphires on September 14, 2008 in Anzanakaro near Ilakaka, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Donne, age 13, sits near where his father is preparing coffee during a break from mining in Anzanakaro, Madagascar on September 14, 2008. Donne does not go to school anymore but dreams of being a doctor someday. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

A miner waits patiently for his partner to tug on the rope inside a deep hole in a nearby river basin in their quest for sapphires on September 14, 2008 in Anzanakaro, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners work a pock-marked field beside a river basin searching for sapphires on September 14, 2008 near Ilakaka, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Donne, age 13, watches as adult miners head to a river basin to strain gravel they have extracted from deep holes in the ground in Anzanakaro, Madagascar on September 14, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Sapphires of various colors are shown, lined up at a local precious stone business in the Ilakaka, Madagascar on September 13, 2008. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

Miners toil atop an outer wall of an open pit sapphire mine on September 12, 2008 as they continue their search for sapphires near Ilakaka, Madagascar. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images) #

 
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