Letter to the Editor: On Ethics and Gemmology

In a letter to the editor, a Gems&Jewellery reader, who has chosen to remain anonymous, shares opinions sparked by Jonathan Muyal's striking and Gem-A award-winning image of a Malagasy miner (pp.8-9) in the Winter 2017, Vol. 26, No.4 issue of the magazine. To share your opinions, please email editor@gem-a.com

"The image adjudged winner of the recent 'Humanity in Gems' category of the photographic competition is certainly evocative and the caption describes some of the lifestyle of the worker portrayed. However, as this current issue of Gems&Jewellery (Volume 26, No.4 Winter 2017) includes several articles about ethics in gemmology and the efforts of several groups searching for ways to make the chain of events between miner and the retail trade more transparent, there are aspects about the image that provoke discussion.

The man in the image typifies artisanal workers in the sapphire diggings from where any gems recovered will be traded locally. The dealers in the nearby town include Malagasies and others from Sri Lanka and Thailand; these buyers are well aware they are largely trading in unlawfully gleaned gems. The discovery of these alluvial gems has resulted in a situation similar to the recent illegal diamond diggings at Marange in Zimbabwe.

Read more: Gold Fever in Arizona

Conservation of the land is of paramount importance for all and requires management under a supportive government. Much of the uncontrolled mining activities in Madagascar come at a devastating cost to the local environment where deforestation had led to desertification and river systems choked with sediment. Unplanned pitting, 'pig rooting' and terracing methods make a bad start to the gemstone 'pipeline'.

Read more: Ancient Sapphires and Adventures in Ceylon

Mineral resources when properly managed under tenement ownership produce improved conditions for miners as health and safety regulations apply. This is the prerogative of the Malagasy Government and not the gemstone users. Every mineral deposit is a diminishing asset once exploitation commences, mining is not a sustainable activity, but when correctly organised the local ecosystem is also considered.

The sad fact of this uncontrolled mining is that it takes place in Madagascar; a country where up to 80% of the primordial forests have already been destroyed for domestic usage and the huge charcoal industry and with them, unique fauna and flora. The original forests are not sustainable under the current regime of exploitation and tree planting programmes, predominantly of fast-growing eucalypts, are a 'Band-Aid' solution. One cannot expect wildlife to feast on replanted non-endemic trees that take decades to mature. The ongoing destruction of forests sounds the death knell for the ecosystem.

Read more: A Connection to Coral

Any mining activities that cause further destruction of primary forest should be subjected to maximum control to prevent habitat loss. The root of the problem in Madagascar is a political one.

By contrast the recent Journal (Journal of Gemmology) includes comment from a group of gemmologists visiting Sri Lanka; here the gem pits described are "official" and the scene is productive with few miners. The mining methods required in Sri Lanka are similar to those for the alluvial gems in Madagascar yet the contrast is stark.

The winning image should remind us of some of the background provenance problems for gemmologists when purchasing gemstones, particularly via the internet where accurate information about their acquisition is generally void. Only good government with a robust legislature and sustained efforts by the local population can improve this situation.

Before you purchase your Madagascan sapphire, listen for the cries of the endangered indris.

Interested in finding out more about gemmology? Sign-up to one of Gem-A's courses or workshops.

If you would like to subscribe to Gems&Jewellery and The Journal of Gemmology please visit Membership.

Cover image: A miner after a hard day's work near Ilakaka, Madagascar, by Jonathan Muyal FGA. 


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