Sri Lanka’s Gemstones

Sri Lanka has often been branded as the treasure island of the Indian ocean with an ancient history of gemstone mining and processing. Descriptions of the island by Nearchus (one of the officers in Alexander’s army) around 334 BC suggest the abundance of translucent gems on the island. Mining has been active for millennia on the island and been a major focus of trade and wealth generation. The island also exemplifies the ability of miners to adapt between agricultural (rubber tapping and tea farming) and mineral economies depending on the seasons and the deposit discovery. 

Approximately 90% of Sri Lanka’s commercial gems are found in alluvial deposits and hence the mining is conducted at relatively shallow depths of less than 20 meters. More recently, deeper pits have been dug as well in the search for the prized sapphires that are Sri Lanka’s most distinctive gem. The fabled “cornflower blue” of Sri Lanka’s sapphires can fetch prices to rival diamonds. A wide variety of other stones are also found, including rare examples of alexandrite – among the most precious of gems. The country’s mines are mostly located in the southeast portion of the island, centered around the town of Ratnapura (this name means town of gems).

Mining methods
The prospecting for minerals is rooted in deep traditions and often exploration begins with astrological consultations and a religious ritual of food offerings to “Bahirawaya,” a spirit who is reported to be in charge of earthly wealth. Miners usually bring gem-bearing gravel called illam (similar in etymology to the name Eilam that is used by Tamil rebels for their claimed ‘homeland’) to the surface. Workers then wash the gravel in plaited baskets. The washed gravel is called dullam andis usually examined by the supervisor or the owner of the mine for gems.

Mining for gems is often carried out on a small-scale co-operative basis using traditional technology. Several miners form a group and share the labor and other costs, as well as the profits from the sale of any gemstones found. Such a group is known as karuhaula. The bearer of the license for such a mine is known as the owner of the mine. His license legitimizes his membership in the group and his haula or share in the mine. Each worker in a mine holds a haula justified by contributing his labor. The others involved in karuhaula include the owner of the land, the owner of the water pump, and the supplier of timber and logs for lining the pit.

Miners are paid a weekly allowance, food and very basic lodging. However they are entitled to a percentage of any profit received from the mine (usually under 5%). All the others in karuhaula also receive their share by percentages calculated on the total gross realization.

Demographics of miners
Since mining is often a seasonal vocation, keeping track of data on the actual number of miners can be difficult. The most detailed study of miners in Sri Lanka was conducted by Dr. S.W. Amarasinghe under a contract from the U.K. Department for International Development in 1999.  

The rather small sample of this study consisted of 12 mine owners and 30 mine workers selected from three village units of these respective areas in which gem mining is highly concentrated: Kosgala village in Kuruwita, Kattanga in Opanayake and Ganaegama in Pelmadulla. Poverty was pervasive among the mineworkers -- 80% of whom were recipients of Samurdhi – poverty alleviation benefits from the government. These benefits are given to the most vulnerable of families on a sliding scale. Furthermore, 23% of mineworker families had no high land and 63% had no low land. Moreover, among the high land owners 67% of families owned an extent of less than one acre.

The study revealed that 67% of mine owners were over 41 years old and many of them i.e. 50% fell into the age category of 41-50 years. Surprisingly, mine owners had a fairly satisfactory level of education. 83 % of mine owners possessed an education of GCE (General Certificate of Education) O-level or above. Among the mineworkers, 70% in the sample received an education above primary level. However, the largest group of them i.e. 50% had obtained the education level
of 6th-8th grades.

The government issues licenses for gem mines, lapidaries and gem dealers. According to a 2004 study by Dr. G Dharmaratne of the Sri Lankan Geological Survey and Mines Bureau there are about 3700 active gem mining licenses, 255 lapidary licenses and 2900 gem dealer licenses in the country.  Further details about employment from this study are provided below in Table 1. Other informal estimates place the demographics of mineral dependent households as high as half a million.

 

Table 1: Demographics of Sri Lankan gemstone mining
(estimates by Dharmaratne, 2004 presentation at CASM meeting, Colombo)

Vocation

Official

Unofficial

Total

Mining

85,000

20,000

105,000

Lapidary

20,000

10,000

30,000

Dealers

3,000

5,000

8,000

Heat treaters

200

100

300

Jewelry mfg.

18,000

5,000

23,000

Gemologists

350

--

350

Total

126,500

40,100

166,650

 

Environmental Impact
The environmental impact of gemstone mining in Sri Lanka has been studied more than other regions, largely due to the high literacy of the country -- approximately 96% in 2006 (with over 66% having completed high school).

A major environmental health concern associated with gemstone mining has been the spread of malarial vectors and biological agents of other tropical diseases as a result of stagnant water in abandoned mining pits.  A study conducted by A.M.G.M. Yapabandara [5] and colleagues in 2001 suggested that gem pits were a significant factor in malaria proliferation. The researchers fumigated pits and found that malarial prevalence was reduced in the nearby villages by 24%.  Subsequently, C.F. Curtis [2] from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine did a follow-up study in the Kaluganga gem mining area in the dry zone of central Sri Lanka and found that “due to migration of malaria patients, there is a likelihood the disease could be spread to other parts of the island. Therefore, action should be taken to eliminate these pits as breeding sites.”

The destruction of agricultural land for mining has been a major concern in many areas of Sri Lanka. For example in the 1970s, local farmers around Elahera used their own rice paddies as mining land. The argument was also made that historically this region was mined in the thirteenth century under King Parakramabahu and subsequently returned to agricultural activity [4]. While this is certainly possible with careful management of mineral extraction, in most cases, the remediation effort after mining has occurred is very limited.

Interestingly enough, an insurance scheme was launched in 1996 with mine operators contributing Rs 10/miner. Two years later this scheme was abandoned since the claims were less than 5% as compared to the premium being paid and serious accidents were relatively few and far between.

However, there are clearly indirect injuries and environmental impacts which also deserve to be considered. For example in 2003, there was a major landslide and flooding event that is partly attributed to erosion due to blasts caused by mining as well as deforestation. 250 people were killed and several thousand were dislocated from their homes. Perceptions about the cause of this environmental damage were studied by Ruhuna University and Rainforest Rescue International and revealed that 70% of respondents in the affected area believed deforestation was the primary cause and 12% felt mining was the major cause.

The impact of erosion and downstream silting as a result of mining has been challenged in the courts as well. Mining at the Bagawanthalawa gemstone deposits stopped in 2004 following a court injunction. Mud from mining was silting the Castlereagh Reservoir, which was a source of hydroelectricity for Sri Lanka.

Regulation
The Sri Lankan Government established the State Gem Corporation in 1971. The
main purpose of the corporation was to provide systematic improvement to the Sri
Lankan gem industry by helping to improve skills and craftsmanship, increasing gem exports, allocating state-owned land for gem mining, and issuing permits and licenses. With the broadening of these objectives the Corporation has subsequently been restructured and renamed as the National Gem and Jewelry Authority (since 1993). Child labor was considered a major concern by the government and the Mines and Minerals act of 1992 prohibited any person under the age of 18 from participating in gemstone mining. The concern also extends to the gem-cutting sector where children are often trained and hired because of their superior vision. The gem-cutter’s career is often limited by age as vision deteriorates. Retraining older workers to perform other tasks is a concern that deserves further attention.

The Sri Lankan Export Development Board estimates that the country exports $80-100 million worth of gemstones and $20 million worth of jewelry. With improved infrastructure in heat treatment, the gemstone export could be increased by 65% annually even if the gems are not mined in the country. It is interesting to note that Sri Lankan gem merchants are active worldwide, especially in Madagascar. There is a strong ethnic and familial cluster of this industry among Sri Lankan Muslims – similar to the dominance of the Jain community in the diamond cutting and jewelry manufacturing business in India.
The civil conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers has greatly hampered the development of Sri Lanka’s economy as well as the prioritization of environmental concerns. Since 2006, the escalation of the conflict has also prevented much-needed empirical research in the area of sustainable development options and dilemmas.

Endnotes

[1] Amarasinghe, S.W. 1999. A socioeconomic study of small-scale gemstone mining in Sri Lanka. U.K. Depart of International Development (Knowledge and research project).
[2] Curtis, C.F. 2004. Vectors and malaria transmission in a gem mining area in Sri Lanka. Journal Of Vector Ecology. Volume: 29 Issue: 2 (2004-01-01) p. 264-276.
[3] Dharmaratne, P.G.R. 2004. Legal, finanical, fiscal and indtrastructure aspects of the gem industry in Sri Lanka. Presentation at the CASM general meeting, Colombo, October.
[4] Gunawardene, Mahinda and Mahinda S. Rupasinghe (1986). The Elahera Gem Field in Central Sri Lanka. Gems and Gemology, Summer 1986.
[5] Yapabandara A.M. G. M, Curtis C.F., Wickramasinghe M.B., Fernando W.P. Control of malaria vectors with the insect growth regulator pyriproxyfen in a gem-mining area in Sri Lanka. Acta Tropica 80 (3): 265-276 DEC 21 2001
[6] Zwaan, Peter C. 1982. Sri Lanka: The Gem Island. Gems and Gemology, Summer 1982.

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