The discovery of gemstones near Madagascar’s largest wetland has fueled a mining boom that threatens the environment and the local community.
The rural commune of Andilana Avaratra has seen its population nearly double as miners flock there from across Madagascar in search of beryl, a mineral family that includes gems like aquamarine.
The mining activity, none of it permitted, has scarred a hill and threatens to wash large volumes of sediment into Lake Alaotra, a Ramsar Site that’s home to unique and endangered species.
The miners’ presence has also led to a surge in crime and sexually transmitted diseases, with the local community seeing little in the way of benefits from the boom.
ANDILANA AVARATRA, Madagascar — “With a little luck, you can find a stone as big as your fist and become a billionaire,” says Naina, a miner who traveled 750 kilometers, or 470 miles, from his hometown to seek his fortune at a gem deposit recently discovered in the remote Madagascan commune of Andilana Avaratra. “Billions and billions of our currency are at stake here.”
Naina, not his real name, is one of as many as 20,000 would-be miners who has converged on this scrubby, windswept hill on the western shore of Lake Alaotra, Madagascar’s largest wetland. In late 2020, workers extracting mica nearby found beryl, a mineral family that includes gems like aquamarine, highly sought after in the global jewelry market.
The hill once hosted a reforestation project managed by local schools, and overlooks the village, the open water and the lake’s remaining marsh. Today, it’s peppered with deep holes and blanketed in a quilt of makeshift plastic tents, partitioned from each other by fences of raw reed. With no sanitation facilities and tens of thousands of people living on site, the hill reeks of garbage and human waste. Miners spend their days and nights here, with each partition occupied by as many as 20 miners who work in shifts tunneling into the earth.
“More than 1,000 excavations exist in Andilana Avaratra,” says Damoela Randriantsimaniry, general secretary of the Alaotra-Mangoro region, where the commune is located.
Before the beryl rush, Andilana Avaratra was home to 16,000 residents, most of them eking out a living farming rice and fishing in the lake and its surrounding wetlands. Since then, however, life has changed dramatically. While the mine promises great riches, few benefits have flowed to the commune’s residents. Instead, they’ve been left to face the social and environmental fallout of an illegal, uncontrolled mining boom.
While Madagascar has been an important global supplier of aquamarine and other types of beryl since the early 20th century, the Andilana Avaratra deposit is the richest beryl mine yet found in the country, says Rahajason Andriambololona, the Alaotra-Mangoro regional director of the Cadastral Mining Office of Madagascar.
The area has been mined for mica since 2008, but the gems were first discovered in November and December of 2020, says Andilana Avaratra Deputy Mayor , who, like many Madagascans, goes by one name.
It was the laborers digging for mica who struck the beryl by accident, Andriambololona says: “They discovered crystallized stones at a certain depth into the soil. That was the starting point of the beryl discovery in the locality.”
According to Andriambololona, a gram of high-quality aquamarine is worth 3 million ariary ($754), a fortune in a country where the majority of the population lives on less than $2 per day.
The discovery therefore sparked a frenzy. In defiance of travel restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, crowds of miners arrived from all across the country. They expanded their search for gems, moving on to explore a cliff overlooking the town hall, school and marketplace. Quality raw beryl stones were unearthed there in January 2021.
“Suddenly, our village was overcrowded,” Rakotonarivo says. Any available space was forcibly occupied by miners, he adds. “Day and night, people didn’t sleep.”
As the months passed, however, many miners drifted away, disappointed by the failure to strike it rich after so much work. Nearly one-fourth of the newcomers left in August, Rakotonarivo says. Others have persisted.
For those who have succeeded, the rewards could be vast. “Our own estimates show up the raw stones extracted from this place would have generated at least 200 billion ariary [$50 million] since the beginning of the rush,” says Sambatra Raveloarison, head of an ad hoc group in March 2021 by miners working under supervision of regional authorities to help deal with conflicts relating to the mine.
The Malagasy mining code requires that miners pay taxes to the commune, the region, and the national government. Environmental impact screenings must also precede any mining activity.
None of this has happened in Andilana Avaratra.
“Such a huge amount of money has never [profited] either the locality or the region and even the nation,” Raveloarison says. Instead, the beryl rush has had immense socioeconomic and environmental impacts.
Wetlands under threat
The mining sites are mere kilometers away from Lake Alaotra and its marshes, recognized as a Ramsar Site, a globally important wetland. The lake is home to an array of rare species, the most famous among them the Alaotra gentle lemur (Hapalemur alaotrensis), known locally as the bandro, and the recently described mongoose-like Durrell’s vontsira (Salanoia durrelli). The wetland also was once the unique habitat of the Madagascar pochard.
The nearly 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of rice fields surrounding the lake represent Madagascar’s main rice bowl. Their annual production averages 360,000 metric tons of rice, around 10% of the country’s yield. But the area is under ecological stress: deforestation, destruction of the reed forest, overfishing, and environmental decline caused by soil degradation.
The illegal mining activity in Andilana Avaratra risks speeding that decline, says Hortensia Joeline Raheliarivelo, secretary general of Alaotra Rano Soa (ARS), the regional body that facilitates communities’ management of the lake and marshes. “The mine is located at 1-2 kilometers [0.6-1.2 mi] away from the lake’s shore,” she says. “The law says any places at 2-5 kilometers [up to 3 mi] from the core site must be put under protection.”
Of primary concern, Raheliarivelo says, is what will happen to the tons of soil excavated from the mining site, particularly during the rainy season of November to April. “The sands and the mud will go into the lake in case of heavy rains, while the lake needs to be protected from alluvial deposits from the hills,” she says. “If the lake is destroyed, the life of the population in the surroundings is threatened too.”
Lake Alaotra’s Ramsar designation is due for reassessment soon, Raheliarivelo says, and her organization is concerned the lake could be delisted if the issue continues.
In addition to threats to the fishing and farming they depend on for their livelihood, residents of Andilana Avaratra have faced a host of social problems resulting from the influx of thousands of miners into their community.
“Residents have undergone unhealthiness, insecurity, nuisance, price increase,” Raheliarivelo says. “They haven’t, however, profited from the mine exploitation.”
The existing sanitation infrastructure has been unable to cope with the near doubling of the population. The whole village stinks because of the mounds of garbage and mass open defecation.
In the lawless mines and their surroundings, crime is also rife, residents say. “Miners destroyed the fence, burglarized our property,” says Véronique Rasoanahasimbolana, director of a local private school. She says they stole two tables and 25 chairs.
Randriamirado, director of the state junior high school, says students have been accosted on the road. During the peak of the rush in early 2021, street vendors blocked access to the three schools in Andilana Avaratra. Both Randriamirado and Rasoanahasimbolana say the disintegration of public order has badly affected schooling during the 2020-2021 school year. “Given the uncertainty, [some] parents didn’t let their children go to school,” Rasoanahasimbolana says. The Andilana Avaratra mayor, Tsiriniaina Ruffin Rakotoharison, was not available for an interview.
The town has also witnessed a surge in cases of sexually transmitted diseases as sex work has flourished with the presence of the miners. In August, Mongabay visited the basic health center (CSB) in Andilana Avaratra and saw several empty boxes of Ceftriaxone, the usual antibiotic to treat syphilis and other STDs, piled up in the garbage. “We didn’t report any cases of sexually transmitted diseases before the beryllium rush,” says Jeannette Razanamanana, a midwife who heads the health center. Since then, she adds, “an average of five men a day ask for intravenous treatment with this drug.”
The real number of cases is likely far higher. “Many of the infected don’t know the existence of the health center,” Razanamanana says. And with antibiotics and other medication sold on the street, many miners rely on self-diagnosis and treatment. “They report to our service only when they suffer from complications,” she says.
For the sex workers who have flocked to the beryl mine, a single customer earns them up to 70,000 ariary ($17.60), the equivalent of 10 days’ wages for a farm laborer in Madagascar. So far, no cases of COVID-19 or HIV have been reported, Razanamanana says.
Limited benefits, even to landowners
Those who own the land on and near the mining site have benefited financially from the beryl rush. According to Deputy Mayor Rakotonarivo, most of the lots being mined are owned on the basis of traditional occupation; only one family holds official title to their land.
Unable to keep the miners off their land, locals have had to strike deals with them to avoid a land grab. These deals consist of individual, ad-hoc benefit-sharing arrangements. In many cases, financiers, both local and from outside, agree to provide the miners with food and other supplies for the duration of the work. In return, they claim half of any stone that is found. The rest is divided between the miners and the landowner. “For a group of 10 miners, for example, their share must be divided into 11. The eleventh part is due to the landowner,” says Rivo Ramanamirija, who served as Andilana Avaratra’s mayor from 2016 to 2019. He says he allows miners to dig for beryl on his family plot, and has hired a representative to keep an eye on their progress.
“The unexpected change was lucrative for any residents who had available plots, houses, rooms and any outdoor spaces,” says Ramanamirija, a resident who rents a 4-square-meter (43-square-foot) plot to vendors for 3,000 ariary (75 U.S. cents) a day. A hut made of dried reeds goes for 100,000 ariary ($25) a month, while a small room without electricity or water can bring in twice that. By contrast, the average monthly wage for a laborer amounts to no more than $50.
Miners also victims of the rush
For most miners, the costs and risks of the work have yielded little reward. The work is physically brutal, with no guarantee of even a basic salary, and at times immensely dangerous.
They dig down to depths of 80 m (260 ft) — a job that takes three to four weeks for a team of miners working around the clock — before digging dogleg tunnels that can stretch as far as 40 m (130 ft) along a seam. Handmade wooden pulleys are used to hoist up excavated soil and stone. Those working on the surface constantly maneuver rudimentary plastic tubes to ventilate the deep pits.
Deaths reportedly began even before the beryl discovery, with a landslide killing workers collecting mica. And beryl miners say many of their colleagues have died, falling into open pits in the dark. Officials haven’t been able to fully corroborate these statements. “Three deaths were reported to the communal service. One of them died from asphyxia inside the excavation,” Deputy Mayor Rakotonarivo says.
Razanamanana, the health center head, says deaths in the mines may have been reported directly to the health centers in other communes, such as Amboavory and Amparafaravola, and thus not counted in Andilana Avaratra.
The mine has also seen two deadly clashes. The first occurred on April 26, between miners native to the Alaotra region and those newly arrived from outside, whom the locals judged as arrogant. The clash reportedly resulted in the death of two people on the newcomers’ side.
Two days later, on April 28, Thimoté Rakotomahandry, prefect of Ambatondrazaka, the district where Andilana Avaratra is located, ordered the mining activity in the commune to be halted to preserve public order.
But the miners ignored the injunction, prompting security forces to attempt to clear the mining site by force on May 22.
Accounts vary as to exactly what happened next. Police used tear gas and allegedly fired live ammunition. According to Raveloarison, head of the ad hoc committee to resolve social conflict, who was on site at the time, “Provocation from the miners’ side resulted in firing.”
“The total number of the injured was three. One of them died. We took care of the lifeless corpse,” Raveloarison says. “Our intention was to make the order respected. But we faced a collective complicity. The miners were defiant. Following the clash with the security forces, one person died in the hospital.”
Miners, however, unanimously accused the gendarmes of abuses against unarmed people. “The gendarmes are part of the groups who have garnered a lot of money from the beryl,” miner Naina says. “They hire other miners as their spies who constantly inspect each of the existing pits. They alert the gendarmes once they are sure which excavations are about to be fruitful. By the evening, armed officers and soldiers go to the pinpointed cavities. They order the miners to go out and to leave far away. The usually threaten to open fire when the miners resist. One officer even dares send tear gas into the holes while men are still inside. Then the spies gain entry to the excavations to bring back up the raw stones already packed with plastic bags by the excavators.”
Fenohery Rakotonirina, the military colonel who commands the regional security forces, gives his own version of the incident. “Troops from the army, the gendarmerie and the national police were present on the mine at the beginning. The army had to withdraw its team given the misbehavior,” he says, referring to accusations of misconduct by soldiers in the field. “The gendarmerie and the national police’s troops had to remain,” Rakotonirina says.
All officers sent to Andilana were subject to allegations of abuse, Rakotonirina says. “I carried out myself my own investigation. But there was no evidence confirming the assertions.” However, he says one officer who was strongly suspected of committing abuses was redeployed to another region in mid-September. “It was the decision of the hierarchy who is constantly aware of the reality in the field,” he says.
Mine shut down, but not really
Since January 2021, officials at both the regional and national levels have tried to find a solution to the problems in Andilana Avaratra.
The Ministry of Mines and Strategic Resources has called for the closure of the mine. “The government is still studying how to do to manage any cases of mines like the one in Andilana for the nation’s interest,” Sedera Andrandraina Randrianarivelo, the ministry’s director of communication and international relations, told Mongabay. “Officially, the beryllium mine was closed down in May. The sale of this substance is prohibited until further order. Ongoing exploitation is illegal.”
That official order has not stopped the influx of miners, says Rakotomahandry, the prefect.
In August and September, authorities ordered the expulsion of miners from Andilana Avaratra. But, again, the attempt to clear the mining site failed. In recent weeks, more attacks and crimes have been reported.
Regulating the mining activity in Andilana Avaratra has proved “impossible,” says Rakotomahandry. “It’s about a crowd of thousands of persons. It’s risky to push them back.”
On Oct. 6 in the regional capital, Ambatondrazaka, Rakotomahandry headed a large meeting with local officials, including lawmakers, mayors and conservationists. The talks were focused on the situation of the protected areas in the Lake Alaotra region. The officials resolved to focus first on raising awareness about the importance of protecting the area, rather than on punishing violators.
Marc Behaja Rajaonarivo, regional director of environment and sustainable development for Alaotra-Mangoro, called on all parties to abide by environmental regulations. Raheliarivelo from ARS, the regional body overseeing environmental management, concurs. “When we have to implement a mine project, we want it to be fair and environmentally friendly,” she says. “If not, more rushes happen as soon as people are aware of newly discovered rich mines.”
After beryl, comes sapphire
That’s already happened. In August 2021, sapphire was found in the rural commune of Beanana in Amparafaravola district, also in the Alaotra-Mangoro region. Once again, miners flooded in.
In this case, however, the mine is being closely monitored, officials say. “We haven’t received further requirements from the government. What we are doing currently is to carry out supervision patrol on the mines in Andilana and in [Beanana],” Rakotonirina, the military officer, told Mongabay.
According to Andilana Avaratra Deputy Mayor Rakotonarivo, the discovery of the sapphire mine was what drew many of the beryl miners away from his commune and toward Beanana in August. In the latter commune, he says, they engaged in armed robberies of villagers, vendors and other miners, frustrated at having toiled for months without any results.
Sapphire has proven rarer to unearth than even beryl, and the lack of security surrounding the mine has driven many of the miners out of Beanana, Rakotonarivo says — and back to Andilana Avaratra.