This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here. To read the full article at Slate, click here.
February 14, 2014
Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
ILAKAKA, Madagascar—Southern Madagascar is a land awash in superstition—of witches and reincarnation and haunted bridges where children leap out of the darkness to send cars careening into the abyss. As our driver pulls over for the night in the roadside town of Ambalavao en route south to Ilakaka, a once-booming sapphire town, I notice my French-Malagasy photographer Rija’s face turn ashen. He recalls his last stay here, when an unsettling late-night encounter with a delirious old woman ended in her vowing that he would not finish his journey “intact.” A few days later, his camera bag inexplicably vanished from the top of a bush taxi. He has never quite shaken the feeling that he was cursed that night in Ambalavao.
One might forgive Madagascar’s entire southern region for concluding it has been dealt a similar fate. In contrast to the verdant rolling hills of northern and central Madagascar, large swaths of the southern plains are arid and prone to food shortages. Seven in 10 southern households don’t have enough food. In 2009 a coup in the capital, Antananarivo, unleashed a cascade of crises across the country. Since then a series of droughts have conspired with the worst locust outbreak in more than 50 years to compound the south’s hardship. Heavily armed gangs of cattle rustlers now roam with impunity. Banditry has grown so bad that long stretches of national highways are no-go zones for authorities.
Every so often, however, the gods do smile on this forbidding land. Consider the case of Ilakaka. Until 1998 Ilakaka was home to a handful of houses, a few dozen residents, abundant scrubland—and little of particular interest. Then came the gemstone boom. Fifteen years later, with Madagascar having just elected a new president and hoping to finally put five years of political upheaval behind it, Ilakaka is the country’s greatest and unlikeliest boomtown—and a stark reminder of the persistent obstacles of making genuine progress in a blighted land.
The story of today’s Ilakaka begins in the early 1990s. The first significant discoveries of gemstones came in northern Madagascar, fueling waves of migration to the fringes of its vast forests. Meanwhile, in the south, a smaller number of prospectors were collecting garnets to sell to foreign dealers. One batch from Ilakaka, a sharp-eyed buyer noticed, were not garnets at all, but something exponentially more lucrative: pink sapphire.
Word spread quickly. Within a year thousands of ramshackle tenements sprawled on either side of National Route 7. Tom Cushman, a sailor-mouthed American gem dealer who’d first come to Madagascar in 1991, was one of the first to set up shop in Ilakaka. “I was down there in September  and there were only about five of us buying. Buying out of our cars. There was no town,” Cushman recalls. The vibe, he says, was 1849 Sacramento Valley. By early 1999, according to Cushman, there were tens of thousands of people seeking their fortunes. By late 1999 there were 100,000.