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Madagascar Pink Sapphire

Want some idea of the sudden, staggering importance of Madagascar's new sapphire wealth to the people of that huge African island off the east coast of Mozambique? Try this story on for size. We'll call it, without fear of exaggeration, "Gunfight at Corundum Gulch." It has as much to do with anthropology as gemology.

Around the vicinity of the country's most recent diggings at Toliara, on the west coast just at the Tropic of Capricorn, live a tribe called the Bara. For centuries, cattle-rustling has been as much a way of life with this tribe as horse-stealing once was in the American West. Indeed, Bara grooms can't get married until they've stolen enough livestock from neighbors' herds to convince the tribal elders that they'll be good providers. As Dave Barry is fond of writing, I'm not making this up.

Lately, the elders of the Bara tribe seemed to have amended the acceptable proofs of "providership" to include robbing gems from the tens of thousands of miners who have swarmed into the area since a major find of corundum was made last fall. There's just one trouble with this new rite—or wrong—of initiation. The police and the army alike take a much dimmer view of sapphire stealing than cattle poaching. So recently when a Bara tribesman attempted to hold up a gem miner at gunpoint, there was a shootout in which five people were killed—three of them, alas, innocent bystanders.

Sad to say, in a country where $300 is more than the average worker makes in a year, no one really expects the heists to stop. Not as long as Madagascar is riding the current wave of gem prosperity and miners make easy prey. And from all indications, that boom is still in its early stages. Indeed, the country could be poised to become Africa's, if not the world's, biggest gem cornucopia. It already leads in blue and pink sapphire production. That's why Thai and Sri Lankan dealers are flocking to the country to buy all the corundum they can get. At Toliara, that means mostly pink, the hottest sapphire hue, outside of blue, in the world today. What's more, prices for the African pinks are currently half those of stones found in Sri Lanka, the Asian island-counterpart to Madagascar off the southern tip of India, which produces better-known goods with similar bubble-gum colors. Will the new plentitude of African pink sapphire last?

Dirt Rich

Given the abundance of its pink sapphire, one wonders why Madagascar didn't become a major source of this gem sooner. After all, it has been a kingpin in blue sapphire for most of this decade. So why not pink? One major obstacle to the earlier emergence of Madagascar as a powerhouse in pinks might be the fact that when first found two years ago the material was mistakenly believed to be near-worthless garnet with color that locals described as "peach-fuzz pink." The few who knew the truth about its identity stayed mum so they could continue to buy it cheap.

Second, the brunt of this sapphire is found in a national park. And since earlier gem mining on protected lands in the north caused an eco-disaster, the government is determined to prevent a sequel in the south.

Luckily, enough corundum has been found on the outskirts of the park to allow mining without mayhem. What makes this collective restraint so amazing is that shortly after the discovery of corundum at Toliara last fall, there was an influx of opportunity-starved locals. In March 1999, 20,000 to 30,000 people were working along the park perimeters without yet trespassing on government lands. Fines of $1,000 just for digging in the park may be one deterrent. But, also, corundum is plentiful in sanctioned areas. However, what happens when the surface is scratched clean remains to be seen.

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Madagascar Pink Sapphire