A sapphire rush has brought tens of thousands of people into the remote rainforests of eastern Madagascar, disfiguring a protected environmental area and prompting calls for military intervention, the AP reports. More high-quality sapphires have been found in the biodiverse area known as Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena in the past six months than in the entire country over the past 20 years, per Vincent Pardieu, a French gemologist who has been visiting mines there for more than a decade. "I can tell you this is big," Pardieu says. "It's the most important discovery in Madagascar for the past 20 or 30 years." Tens of thousands of miners and gem traders have poured into the rainforests around the village of Bemainty, say local officials, adding the miners have cut down thousands of acres of forest in the protected area, which environmental group Conservation International helps manage.
The protected forests in the island nation's eastern corridor area are "one of Madagascar's most precious resources," the World Bank notes. Michael Arnstein, president of the Natural Sapphire Company, says Madagascar produces about half of the world's high-end sapphires, with maybe $150 million worth of sapphires leaving Madagascar each year. "You have all these small-scale, Wild West operations," he says. "It's chaos." The latest rush for sapphires began about six months ago, leading Madagascar's government to declare the corridor's protection a national priority. With local officials unable to control the situation, CI has called for a military intervention. "We have made many requests," says Bruno Rajaspera, the group's director of projects. "But there are too many influential people that are involved in the trade of the stones. The government doesn't dare take concrete action." (Read more Madagascar stories.)