Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, but beneath its soil is a well-stocked treasure chest. Rose quartz and amethyst, tourmaline and citrine, labradorite and carnelian: Madagascar has them all. Gems and precious metals were the country’s fastest-growing export in 2017 – up 170% from 2016, to $109m. This island country of 25 million people now stands alongside far larger nations, such as India, Brazil and China, as a key producer of crystals for the world. And in a country where infrastructure, capital and labour regulation are all in short supply, it is human bodies rather than machinery that pull crystals from the earth. While a few large mining companies operate in Madagascar, more than 80% of crystals are mined “artisanally” – meaning by small groups and families, without regulation, who are paid rock-bottom prices. Common crystals, such as quartz, can form almost anywhere around the world, when water and steam carry mineral particles into fractures in the earth. Drawn together by the mutual attraction of their electrical charges, their molecules stack in orderly sequences, forming defined planes and repeating facets that can create the pleasing shapes – geodes, prisms – that they’re sought for. In the mineral-rich earth of central Madagascar, villagers often find quartz and citrine deposits by chance, when they are revealed by landslide or washed down to nearby riverbeds. The mines dug to meet growing demand are often improvised, operated off the books and without permits. The plunder of Madagascar’s resources for profit is nothing new. The country’s riches still rarely benefit the Malagasy people. It's all as part of the same old story, resources siphoned out of the country for the benefit of foreign companies.
Believers say crystals conduct ambient energy – like miniature phone towers picking up signals and channelling them on to the user – thus rebalancing malign energies, healing the body and mind.
The crystal business is now a big deal, powered by the lucrative combination of social media-friendly aesthetics, cosmic spirituality and the apparently unstoppable wellness juggernaut. In the US, demand for overseas crystals and gemstones has doubled over the past three years, and quartz imports have doubled since 2014. Daniel Trinchillo, owner of Fine Minerals International, a high-end crystal dealership, said that his business makes between $30m and $40m in sales each year. Trinchillo caters to a growing cohort of celebrities, collectors and investment buyers who want rare and valuable crystals. The most expensive single piece he has sold went for $6m, but he knows of some that have sold for $10m. Trinchillo estimates that high-end dealers now account for about $500m in annual sales. Include the lower end, he said, and you are talking about a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar industry.
There is little in the way of fair-trade certification for crystals, and none of the industry-wide transparency schemes developed for commodities such as gold and diamonds. Tracing a crystal from the time it is dragged, dusty and cracked, from the earth, to the polished moment of final sale requires a journey backward down the supply chain: from shop, to exporter, to middleman, to mine, and finally to the men and women who work below the ground, on whose labour a billion-dollar industry has been built.
Anjoma Ramartina is a collection of hamlets that sits atop some of Madagascar’s largest rose quartz deposits, it is a day’s drive from the capital city of Antananarivo. Most homes in Anjoma Ramartina have no electricity, no running water, no phone or network connections. Malnutrition is common. According to the World Bank, around 80% of those outside Madagascar’s cities live below the $1.90-a-day poverty line. Health researchers found around half of parents in Anjoma Ramartina had lost at least one infant child to illness or hunger.
Jean Rahandrinimaro, the deputy mayor of Anjoma Ramartina, describes the local industry. “Crystal, amethyst, rose quartz. Everything except sapphires and rubies, we mine here.” He placed a few stones on the wooden table in front of him: polished clear quartz and purple amethyst. He estimated that from a population of about 10,000 people, up to a quarter of locals now depended on the mines for some income. Between two and four men died each year in the crystal pits surrounding this village, he said – only two last year, but often it was three or four. “Sometimes it’s very dangerous but they still mine, because they want money,” he said. “There’s the possibility of landslide, that happens a lot here. The soil falls on them and they die.”
Landslides are not the only danger for miners. Smashed rocks create fine dust and quartz particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. There, they fester, inflaming surrounding cells, increasing the risk of lung cancer and silicosis. Child labour is also widespread: the US Department of Labor and the International Labour Organization estimate that about 85,000 children work in Madagascar’s mines.
While the crystal business is booming, and largely among consumers who tend to be concerned with environment, fair trade and good intentions, there is little sign of the kind of regulation that might improve conditions for those who mine them. The challenge of sourcing crystals ethically is one faced by the industry as a whole. Every retailer raised the question of price. Would crystal consumers really be willing to pay more to guarantee safer, child labour-free mines, or a fair wage for miners?
And if some of the conditions are truly awful? “Awful is relative, remember,” replies a trader.