MAdagascar mining - Risking it all
Risking it all

Seeking Riches Along Madagascar’s Rosewood and Sapphire Trail

Out-of-work gamekeepers are turning to poaching the endangered rosewood tree – risking arrest, injury and even death.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

In the village of Tenra deep in a jungle in Madagascar, people mostly live off the land – hunting, fishing and farming. There are few paying jobs and money is scarce.

Some out-of-work gamekeepers are now turning to poaching to support their families.

The almost-extinct rosewood trees that grow deep in the forests are highly valued by the Chinese and the sale of one trunk can support these men and their families for half a year.

Robert, 40, a villager, used to be a forest ranger. He worked to protect the area from those seeking to plunder its woods. But after losing his job a few years ago, and in need of a way to make a living, he has since become a poacher.

“When we found out that rosewood was selling for a good price we started cutting some so we could start earning a living again,” Robert says.

This road is dangerous. Passengers have been attacked here. Anything can happen but it's the only way through.

by Robert, tree poacher

But poaching is not without risk. The tree is in such high demand that it is close to extinction and Madagascar’s authorities have banned all rosewood logging.

“We all know it’s illegal, that it’s theft but we really need to make a living. Everything is so expensive here,” Robert says.

The poachers risk arrest, injury and even death to find and transport the trees through the forest and over the rapids in missions that can last weeks at a time.

“This road is dangerous,” says Robert. “Passengers have been attacked here. Anything can happen but it’s the only way through.”

Meanwhile, tree poaching is not the only extreme way people try to make a better living on the island. Some are willing to take even more risks. One way is mining for sapphires.

The myth of easy money from mining the precious gem has brought people from all over the island to the town of Ensoa.

They spend their days 30 metres underground in 40 degrees Celsius heat with barely any oxygen and very little chance of finding a single precious stone.

Most of the stones they dig up are worth just a few dollars.

However, the dream of finding a large, very pure sapphire, which can fetch as much as $5,000 or $6,000 – more than 40 times Madagascar’s average wage – keeps thousands digging away.