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.
One of Andriamanajary’s colleagues carries the rope that will lower him deep into the quarry. Photo by Rijasolo.
Cushman tried to spend at least $1,000 a day. The selection was endless—the deep blue sapphires international buyers lusted over were everywhere, alongside pinks, yellows, and rubies. Once the Thais and Sri Lankans, masters of the sapphire trade, arrived, as much as $2 million a week was changing hands. Virtually overnight this sleepy hamlet became the sapphire capital of the world. Anywhere from a third to half of the world’s sapphire production poured out of its once fallow soils. The myth of Ilakaka grew as fast as its population, drawn by the romance of a frontier town. Fantastic fortunes could be made with one lucky plant of a shovel. In a country where more than 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, single stones were being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
We pulled into Ilakaka the next morning. The town leaves an underwhelming first impression: One drab gem dealership after the next lines a mile-long stretch of Route 7—Azmi Gems, Tonga Soa Siya Gems, La Terrasse Gems, New Sahara Alex Saphir. Inside, foreign dealers sit bored at their desks, waiting for the next miner or middleman to present the morning’s haul for inspection.
It’s immediately apparent that Ilakaka has fallen on hard times. Big stones are few and far between. The low-hanging fruit in the town proper has all been snatched up; miners must walk miles in search of untapped reserves. For three months, the dealers say, almost nothing worth touching has passed through their doors.