Tourmaline Hunting in Madagascar
I have returned for my annual trip to Madagascar. Again, I remark on the sad irony of this country which is so rich in terms of natural resources (precious woods, precious stones, precious metals, spices, etc…) yet hobbled by political instability, corruption, and rough terrain. The result is that production and output are so small in proportion to its resources. Local Malagasy companies and miners do not have the capital to invest in mining, and foreigners, faced with rampant corruption and protectionist laws, do not feel secure investing in mining either.
Gemstone mining in Madagascar had completely transformed in the one year since I had last visited this incredible country. I have always headed to Madagascar primarily to find the clearest, purest blue aquamarines from the miners there, but this time, those mines were deserted, a ghost town.
All the Malagasy aquamarine miners moved on to something deemed to be more sought after: tourmalines. Mother Nature blesses Madagascar with so many different gemstones, and its tourmalines too are among the world’s finest. Demand for these beautiful gemstones, particularly pink tourmalines, is increasing rapidly, thanks to Chinese buyers who appreciate them more and more.
And off I went to the tourmaline mines which are in the eastern part of Madagascar, heading southeast from Antananarivo. October is an arid time for Madagascar and the dust from the road swirled up as we drove slowly up the winding dirt roads, punctuated by sharp rocks and potholes.
From the village where we and the miners stay to the tourmaline mines, it is only 15 kilometers. However, it took an arduous 3 hours to complete the journey. On the way, we met one ancient car, overloaded with miners and their supplies. It is amazing to see it make this tortuous route when we were already bouncing slowly forward in our 4×4. A 4×4 is not perfect either. We came across the son of the village’s mayor who had spent the night waiting for help after his 4×4 had an accident the day before. No help had yet arrived so we gave him a ride. The miners who had accompanied him gave up and walked to the mines. Some walk to the mines every day.
Upon arriving at the mines, my first impression was that it looked like a moonscape inhabited by ants which dig holes and dump their dirt into pyramids. The whole area is barricaded to non-miners but with a few introductions by our friends, we are able to go into the mining area itself.
Miners are working under the most primitive conditions with no safety features other than trust in their 2 partners. Although tourmalines from this new mine are currently (when a relatively new mine) easier than other gemstones (such as beryls) to pry from the earth, they are located deep under the surface. With not much more than hand tools, the miners dig narrow holes only 80 cm wide but are deep, deep – over 35 meters down into the earth. In addition to the vertical hole, a miner also burrows sideways to make horizontal forays for gemstones. At 17 meters below the surface, there is no oxygen so they employ these very rudimentary air bags to send oxygen to their mate deep inside the hole.
I tried cranking up the debris. It was back-breaking work. The debris is scoured for tourmalines and then cast aside, and is seen in the piles of white stones dotted everywhere.
Just outside the mines, it is a different type of danger. The tourmaline mines are a scene from the American wild west. Legally, no foreigners can own mines. Yet with the discovery of tourmalines, the most opportunistic foreigners quickly moved in and struck secret deals with the military and government officials. Malagasy miners – who had owned and managed the aquamarine mines previously – were shut out, forced to rent out smaller claims. They scrape out an insecure existence finding tourmalines but are restricted to selling them back to the owner at the owner’s artificially low price.
The friction between the Malagasy miners and the mine owners plus the adrenaline rush to strike it rich while restricted from profiteering contribute to a tense and dangerous atmosphere. The owner brought in large and rough “police” or “gendarmes” who force compliance rather than maintain fair order and peace. While I didn’t worry about my personal safety so much, I uneasily felt the tension and was nervous about all the guns around me. Clearly, it would not take much to ignite a fire that would be hard to put out with no true police or structure.
In this mining town full of men, I as a foreign woman – also traveling this time with my 12 year old son – was instantly identified as a buyer. Technically, no miner/renter is permitted to sell to anyone but the owner – but it was so tempting to try their luck and make some money. The rules – as such in this lawless town – stipulated that I could not buy tourmalines directly from miners but had to return to the miners’ village and buy from official dealers. But in the swirl of dust and greed, I could buy from policemen – or their friends – who encouraged me to buy on the side. Once I took my chances and followed a man to a shack in the back of the shanty town on the fringe of the mines to inspect his tourmalines.
I did find a handful from another man making a discreet sale to me from the back of our car.
Check out this amazing tourmaline crystal that I purchased. At 100 grams, it is the largest and cleanest red tourmaline I have ever been so lucky to purchase!