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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 November 2007, 12:13 GMT
Madagascar's sapphire rush
By Jonny Hogg
BBC News, Madagascar

The town of Ilakaka in Madagascar did not exist 10 years ago, but now people are flocking there in search of sapphires.

Sapphire mine
Madagascar has one of the largest gem stone deposits on the planet

As a result, it has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous places in the country.

I was doing fine until Jean Noel asked me why I would risk my life to report on Ilakaka.

I must say I had not particularly thought of it like that.

He then pulled out a pistol, showed it to me and told me cheerily that I was perfectly safe.

Guns in the hands of civilians are not a common sight in Madagascar.

But then this is Ilakaka and it seems that things work a little bit differently here.

It was back in 1998 that the discovery of major sapphire deposits in the hot and rocky plains of the island's southern interior sparked an extraordinary scramble for wealth.

Ilakaka and the surrounding region now accounts for around 50% of the world's sapphires.

Almost overnight, a collection of huts - which had acted as little more than a truck stop - grew into a thriving mining town.

Everyone is an outsider here.

Rampant capitalism

The people who were drawn to the town have brought a taste of home with them.

Children holding gemstones
Children who I thought were innocently swimming return from the river with handfuls of sapphires
Asia sits side by side with Madagascar and, turning down one road, I find myself in Africa, or at least Ilakaka's African quarter.

The main road is a riot of ramshackle market stalls, casinos and bars, interspersed with gleaming new offices where the stones are bought and sold.

The word sapphire is everywhere - on walls, signs and shop-fronts.

From its dramatic conception, the town has become a showcase for entrepreneurial spirit and rampant capitalism.

Children, who I thought were innocently swimming, return from the river clutching handfuls of sapphires, which can be simply sifted from the mud on its bed.

Living with violence

Everyone here wants to make a fortune and they are prepared to live in a town where, despite a high police presence, violence is rife.

Town of Ilakaka
An estimated 70% of Malagasy live on less than $1 per day

Jean Noel, one of the founding fathers of Ilakaka, estimates that between 20 and 30 people are murdered each year in a town whose population numbers perhaps 20,000.

Only the week before, a businessman was gunned down in his hotel room after buying a valuable stone.

According to Jean Noel, the violence is getting worse. So, I ask Mr Noel, how does he stay safe?

Mr Noel is in fact Malagasy royalty. His grandfather was a prince of the Antandroy tribe in the south of the island.

But this gives him more than just a sense of familial pride and the cool, benevolent authority he displays towards everyone he meets.

It also - due to Madagascar's traditions of respect and kinship - gives him a degree of protection. But only a degree.

After he had finished buttoning his shirt so that only a slight bulge showed that he was carrying a gun, we headed to his mine site, close to the town centre.

It is a great gash in the sandy, orange earth which snakes its way through the ground as the miners try to locate each new deposit of sapphires beneath the surface.

It is perhaps 12m deep and 20m wide. In the next three weeks Mr Noel hopes they will hit sapphires again.

It is a gamble of course, but it seems that Ilakaka is full of chancers.

After all, the stakes are high.

Apparently the stone the businessman was killed for was worth 15,000 ($30,000).

Baptism of fire

The question remains, why does the violence persist here?

Map of Madagascar

I spoke to Ilakaka's police chief, Philibert Andrianony. Young and energetic, he speaks openly about the challenges of policing the area.

He is also very new to the job and had a baptism of fire when, in his first two weeks, there were two murders.

I asked him why the police cannot stop the blood-letting.

Firstly, he told me, they lack equipment.

They have no radios, no 4x4s to negotiate the appalling roads that weave between the mine sites.

The police are even less well armed than the bandits they battle.

More worryingly, Mr Andrianony also admits that some of his own officers collaborate with the bandits.

Poor police salaries and the lure of illegal riches have blurred the line between lawbreaker and law enforcer.

"It's not acceptable, but it's their choice," Mr Andrianony says.

Danger is bad for business

Mr Noel is also worried about the insecurity. He says it is slowing development.

The individual fortune-hunters are no longer arriving in such numbers, put off by the danger.

Increasingly, the sapphire markets are being dominated by Indians, Sri Lankans and Thais, who can afford to protect themselves.

But Mr Noel still believes passionately in Ilakaka's future.

Yet it seems that the town that came from nowhere is going nowhere.

I ask the driver if we can stay so I could experience Ilakaka by night.

He politely replies that experience is one thing but getting killed is quite another, so no, we cannot stay.

As we pulled out of the town and Ilakaka's macho energy slipped behind us, I had to agree with Mr Noel.

The sapphires are still there and so is the dream of getting rich.

Still, it is a strange place and I will not easily forget the long lingering stare I got as a man, surrounded by guards and carrying a pistol, left a shop and got into his car.

As they pulled away, he coolly held my gaze. I must confess I looked away first.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 17 November, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Down to business in Madagascar
25 Mar 05 |  Africa
Country profile: Madagascar
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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