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Real price of sapphires: Digging for gems in Madagasca

The discovery of pink sapphires in 1998 turned a tiny Madagascan village into a bustling international mining hub overnight.

Thousands of people travelled to the little village of Ilakaka seeking their fortune, making the population boom from 85 to around 100,000 inhabitants.

Sapphires of high quality were found in alluvial deposits, which means that to extract gems there was no need for industrial operations, as they were easily accessible to anyone willing to dig with picks and shovels.

The discovery of pink sapphires in 1998 turned a tiny Madagascan village into a bustling international mining hub overnight

Thousands of people travelled to the little village of Ilakaka seeking their fortune, making the population boom from 85 to around 100,000 inhabitants

Thousands of people travelled to the little village of Ilakaka seeking their fortune, making the population boom from 85 to around 100,000 inhabitants

In its heyday the gems were sometime sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buyers around the world.

But since the initial rush of mining activity, the reserves of precious stones have dried up leaving desperate locals to work in harmful conditions for little reward. 

Hundreds have died in the dangerous mining pits where toxic fumes are a major problem. 

Over the last 15 years illegal mining expanded across the village, resulting in deep holes and residents scavenging knee-deep in red clay.

Photographer Massimo Rumi visited the village in July 2017 to document the rogue miners.

Sapphires of high quality were found in alluvial deposits, which means that to extract gems there was no need for industrial operations, as they were easily accessible to anyone willing to dig with picks and shovels

Sapphires of high quality were found in alluvial deposits, which means that to extract gems there was no need for industrial operations, as they were easily accessible to anyone willing to dig with picks and shovels

In its heyday the gems were sometime sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buyers around the world

In its heyday the gems were sometime sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to buyers around the world

But since the initial rush of mining activity, the reserves of precious stones have dried up leaving desperate locals to work in harmful conditions for little reward

But since the initial rush of mining activity, the reserves of precious stones have dried up leaving desperate locals to work in harmful conditions for little reward

Over the last 15 years illegal mining expanded across the village, resulting in deep holes and residents scavenging knee-deep in red clay

Over the last 15 years illegal mining expanded across the village, resulting in deep holes and residents scavenging knee-deep in red clay

He said: ‘Speaking to some diggers I was told that many people have lost their life, either because holes sometimes collapse without warning or because of the harmful gas in the sapphire pit.

‘Outbreaks of diseases are also common, particularly cholera, due to lack of infrastructures in the overcrowded town.

‘Ilakaka has also a bad reputation for violence and during my stay I had to sleep far away from town, visiting the sites only at day time escorted by soldiers.

Photographer Massimo Rumi visited the village in July 2017 to document the rogue miners

Photographer Massimo Rumi visited the village in July 2017 to document the rogue miners

He said: 'Speaking to some diggers I was told that many people have lost their life, either because holes sometimes collapse without warning or because of the harmful gas in the sapphire pit'

He said: ‘Speaking to some diggers I was told that many people have lost their life, either because holes sometimes collapse without warning or because of the harmful gas in the sapphire pit’

The photographer added: 'Outbreaks of diseases are also common, particularly cholera, due to lack of infrastructures in the overcrowded town'

The photographer added: ‘Outbreaks of diseases are also common, particularly cholera, due to lack of infrastructures in the overcrowded town’

He went on: 'Ilakaka has also a bad reputation for violence and during my stay I had to sleep far away from town, visiting the sites only at day time escorted by soldiers'

He went on: ‘Ilakaka has also a bad reputation for violence and during my stay I had to sleep far away from town, visiting the sites only at day time escorted by soldiers’

‘However, I have to admit that it didn’t feel dangerous at all. When shooting around, people were very welcome and smiling and didn’t mind my presence.’ 

He added: ‘The gems are sold to international dealers from Sri Lanka, India, China or Thailand.

‘Miners get very little money per carat, unless they hide the gems and sell directly to a foreign buyer.

‘The gems I saw were sold for 1 to 5 dollars per carat but were of poor quality.’ 

The photographer went on: 'The gems are sold to international dealers from Sri Lanka, India, China or Thailand'

The photographer went on: ‘The gems are sold to international dealers from Sri Lanka, India, China or Thailand’

He added: 'Miners get very little money per carat, unless they hide the gems and sell directly to a foreign buyer'

He added: ‘Miners get very little money per carat, unless they hide the gems and sell directly to a foreign buyer’

He said: 'The gems I saw were sold for 1 to 5 dollars per carat but were of poor quality'

He said: ‘The gems I saw were sold for 1 to 5 dollars per carat but were of poor quality’

Pictured, a miner looking for sapphires in the mud using a sieve-like implement 

Pictured, a miner looking for sapphires in the mud using a sieve-like implement 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk