THE ECONOMY OF SRI LANKA Part 4 B4
Posted on May 17th, 2022

KAMALIKA  PIERIS

Sri Lanka’s gem-bearing gravels, called illam, are some of the richest in the world. The gravels yield sapphire, ruby, cat’s-eye and other chrysoberyls, spinel, garnet, beryl, tourmaline, topaz, quartz, and many other gemstones. The island was blessed with   geology that provided an ideal blend of chemistry, heat, pressure, time, weathering, for gem crystals to grow and be deposited in gravels.

Gemstone mining in Sri Lanka is mostly from these  deposits. The gravels  at Elahara show evidence of having traveled over long distances. They are often eroded,   which  suggests that the various kinds of gemstones found in the deposits have different origins.

In Sri Lanka gems are extracted from pit mines and rivers. The pit mine contains the main deposits, the residue is found in the rivers. The tributaries  known as ‘Kelani ganga’ and ‘Kalu ganga’ carry some of the world’s finest cornflower blue sapphires.

Gem deposits can also be found in the banks of rivers.  A tributary of the Mahaweli, known as Kalu ganga runs through the main gem area in Elahara. This  tributary  has been a major route for the transportation of  gem materials into the Elahara valley. This has resulted in accumulation of deposits on hill slopes as well as along the banks of the river at Elahara, said researchers.

River mining is usually carried out after the rainy season. Rivers in gem-producing areas  contain alluvial deposits where the river bends or otherwise slows down. River miners usually select a shallow, slow flowing area within the river and build a dam built of wood or rock where the water slows, allowing it to escape from one side. that water is directed through a funnel. The ‘illam’ flows through the funnel and are then filtered by an experienced ‘gem panner’.

Using metal blades attached to long wooden poles,the miners scoop up the gravel and remove the overburden until they reach the illam. Then they use long pointed steel rods to loosen the illam and drag it up, allowing the rushing water to wash the gem-bearing gravel. They remove any visible gemstones, and the remaining gravel  is given further washing.

The operation of a mine requires special skills and a long experience of the industry   prospecting for high value gem deposits is left to well-experienced professionals who use a variety of low tech but very effective methods. One commonly used method is driving a 10 foot long rod into a geographical depression and listening to a very distinct sound as it pierces through the earth. This process usually takes about one or two days and has a proven track record in many areas of Ratnapura and Balangoda.

One of the surprising aspects of gem mining in  Sri Lanka is that you come across traditional pit mines just driving down the roads .One mine was alongside a paved road, as was another shallow pit operation we found by accident right in front of a home and farm,  observed visiting gemologists.

Pit mines are  often dug in   paddy fields. There are two kinds of pit mining, surface mining (Goda patal) and deep  mining in tunnel pits ( Dona patal).Shallow circular pits are dug In areas where gem deposits are located near the surface. this method is economical, when the gem-bearing deposits are not far underground.  a shallow pit usually extends 3 to 10 meters in depth. Work in  shallow pits is usually finished within a couple of days.

Dona Patal, the deep mine pits,  have depths that  can range up to 50 meters, though most pits are between 5 and 25 meters. They are rectangular in shape and   consists of a vertical shaft that measures two by four meters.  A team of 10 laborers  dig a pit reinforced by wooden frames fitted to the walls. A system of air and water pumps are used to remove any water that may have seeped in to the pit and to provide breathable conditions as the laborers go deeper into the earth. The mines are  excavated horizontally,  creating tunnels  extending from 6 to 9 meters or more away from the shaft. It takes at least six months to finish work in a Dona Patal.

These tunnels  are beneath the farmlands so the disruption to the fertile fields is  minimal. . When the mine was  no longer useful, its shafts were filled, its sumps removed, and rice was planted over the  mine, making it impossible sometimes to locate an old mine site. 

Unlike in Africa, there are no unfilled, abandoned pits. National Gem and Jewellery Authority collects a cash deposit when a license is issued. If the mine owner does not rehabilitate the land after mining is complete, the NGJA uses the deposit money for that purpose.

Work in the gem pit starts at an auspicious date and time. Rituals are followed and offerings made to  the spirits at the opening of a new mine. Most of the gemstone mining in Sri Lanka was done by hand in open pits using hand tools They use picks and shovels to excavate the gem gravel. The gravel was removed in baskets on the miners’ shoulders.

A worker at the bottom of the pit removed  soil and gravel with a scraper and placed it in a basket held by another miner. With almost perfect coordination, the basket was tossed up to a chain of three miners, each one a bit higher up, until the basket was emptied and placed in a pile at the top of the pit. As the mud- and gravel-filled basket was tossed to the top, an empty basket was thrown back to the bottom of the pit in what looked like a juggling act,   an acrobatic tossing of baskets .

Gem mining in Sri Lanka has always been conducted  in this way ,using artisan methods, said researchers. This tradition is supported by government and industry to help  sustain the industry and minimize damage to the environment.  Trade and regulatory bodies are against large-scale gemstone mining. They consider traditional small-scale mines less harmful to the environment and a more stable source of employment for more people.

The use of back-hoes and gravel-washing plants has been limited to isolated cases where the gravel beds were known to contain only low concentrations of gems or the same plot of land had been worked by hand methods for many years.

Pit mining  decreased in Elahara  in the late 1980s, when the State Gem Corporation engaged in large-scale surface mining. It   used bulldozers, which lowers the costs involved and increases the yield of gem materials.

There are usually several people involved in a mining operation, including the landowner, the holder of the mining rights, the person who supplies the water pump to remove water from the pit, and the miners. They all receive a share of the proceeds from the sale of the gemstones.

The bearer of the license for  a mine is  considered the owner of the mine. He joins the group with the licence haula or share. Many have four to five mining pits on the property.

 The miners excavate the pit, collect gravel, and wash and examine the gravel in the search for gems. Miners are paid a weekly allowance, however they are entitled to a percentage of any profit received from the mine. Under current regulations, sales proceeds from  the rough stones are divided among the laborers, the land owners and the traders.

Miners form a group and share the costs, labor and profits from the sale of any gemstones found. Such a group is known as karu haula. The others involved in karu haula include the owner of the land, the owner of the water pump, and the supplier of timber and logs for lining the pit. they also receive their share by percentages calculated on the total gross realization. In Sri Lanka the miners are well taken care of and well paid unlike in other countriesby 1986, virtually all of the 650 miners  at Elahara were employed by the State Gem Corporation and licensed private enterprises.

Gem mining is  a complex trade , it  needs patience and involves massive expenses. Mining can last from a couple of months to several years and is often very expensive.  But the benefits reaped make it all worthwhile, said traders. It’ was  estimated  in 2014 that more than two million pits had been dug over the last 50 years.

In Sri Lanka mining is regulated so that the land is protected from overuse. Mining is restricted to small-scale operations where heavy machinery is forbidden. ‘large scale excavations’ using automated heavy machinery is not allowed. one can mine for gemstones in Sri Lanka only by obtaining a permit from the National Gem and Jewellery Authority. foreign nationals are prohibited from obtaining permits for gem mining The  mines  are peaceful and pretty much safe compared to other mining cities and countries, said  visiting gemologists.

Gem-mining activity in Sri Lanka escalated after the government established the State Gem Corporation in 1971. The corporation took over the functions of issuing gem-mining licenses and leasing government land for mining.

In Sri Lanka, gems found on private holdings or on government-owned land (forests, wildlife reserves) are considered government property. In the case of private land, mining rights are given to the land owner and the government collects license fees in lieu of a royalty.  In a gem rush situation the government imposes no immediate restriction, but eventually, the NGJA takes over the land . it is kept under armed protection until the mining rights are auctioned to the public.

Gems has been excavated at Elahera in ancient times. The evidence was there. it has been abandoned thereafter. in  the mid-1940s)a Sri Lankan engineer working on an irrigation project along the Amban Ganga  lost a ring along the side of the river while he was bathing. In the process of searching for the lost ring, he discovered a number of blue and red pebbles, which proved to be either corundum or garnets. He soon started mining but kept the discovery secret.

In the early 1950s construction workers on the Elahera-Pallegama road  found many pebbles of sapphire that had been exposed after a heavy rain. The news of their discovery gradually spread among the professional gem miners in Ratnapura, many of whom set up private, small-scale mining operations in the “new” district.The local farmers started mining in their paddy fields.

in the 1980s,  at Elahara Large-scale mining was being conducted by the State Gem Corporation in collaboration with the private sector. The corporation, at its own expense,  built a new road  to connect Elahera and Pallegama. in the 1980s,the project area was  closed to the public, and anyone who wishes to visit the mines must obtain a permit at the corporation’s head office in Colombo.  

at Kataragama site the mining site was situated within a forest with few settlements. Thousands rushed to the scene in search of sapphires and some even used excavators and dump trucks to remove loads of earth. However, the NGJA soon secured this area. The entire excavated area measured only about 60 sq meters. The NGJA divided this pit and the surrounding area into 49 blocks of about 10 perches(22 m2) each and   mining rights went up  for public auction.

Because of the  publicity surrounding these gems, there was a frenzy of bidding at the auction for one-year mining rights. The auction raised a staggering 270 million rupees, US$2.45 million.  Some of the claims sold for as much as US$80 million per sq meter, thereafter.  (part 4B  concluded)

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