Sustainability in Artisanal Sapphire Mining

This image appears a simple one, two men showing me what they had found that morning on their ‘dig’ in Elahara, Sri Lanka. This was a field trip that we ran in conjunction with the National Association of Jewellers and took a mixture of gemmologists and jewellers to this incredible island nation to discover just what made it so unique and special. Beyond the image is a bigger story. These men are farmers for half the year and then their farmland becomes a mine-site. 

It is Sri Lanka that is home to an artisanal mining symbiosis that is truly heartwarming and it makes one wish it could be this way all over the world. The ancient alluvial floodplanes near Elahara provide the level fields required for the cultivation of rice. The rainy season provides ample water for these fields to be flooded and for the rice to grow. When the rainy season is over and the paddies dry up, the farmers can turn to artisanal mining as a way to supplement their farming crop. They dig down to the alluvial gravel layers and sieve through the gravel for the bounty that gives Sri Lanka the moniker, Island of Gems. When the time comes, they carefully replace the gravel and soil, ensuring the topsoil is the last layer, and they get ready for the rains and the rice-planting.  

In many artisanal mining regions, the rainy season marks the end of the digging season, and so it is common for the hoe to be swapped for the pick, however, in many countries, owning the land does not confer mineral rights. Helping artisanal miners requires efforts on many fronts and national legislation is just one of those areas. 

This image was featured in the “Last Impression” section of Gems & Jewellery Magazine, Volume 27, No.3. Published in Autumn 2018.

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