Our main focus is to create awareness among the many international gem buyers and dealers that Sri Lanka is a direct source of precious and semi-precious stones. Sri Lanka has been famous from time immemorial for the great variety and abundance of gem minerals of extremely high quality and uniqueness, so much so that the island was called Ratnadvipa meaning Gem Island. Significant gem fields had been known from ancient times. They are largely confined to alluvial soils deposited by the larger rivers draining the central, southern and western parts of the country.

The secret of the sustenance of the gem mining industry for well over 2500 years rests on the unique traditional mining methods. The locals that take to gem mining industry as part of their livelihood are skilled in the art and excel with their intimate knowledge of the terrain. Methods are age old, simple and of small scale and worked on a remarkable system of cooperative sharing of the profits from the activity. In pitting, shafts are made to reach where deeper levels of pay gravel exist. Tunnels are made to collect the pay gravel around the base. They rarely exceed 10 to 12 feet. Walls are structured with timber species that resist water rot and fern are used for paneling walls against seepage. Pits are generally confined to marshy terrain and paddy lands.

Gems are also mined from riverbed material by a method of dredging with mammoties having long handles. The blades of these mamoties are about 7 inches by 17 inches and weigh about 12 pounds generally each pit is worked by about 8 – 10 people and dredging at a point by a lesser number of men. Flooding is the main hazard in pit mining and the workers of the present day generally use water pumps to dewater.

There is a tendency to operate suction pumps for extraction of riverbed gravel for gems. There is no control of the operation which takes place under turbid water and the operator is at perfect liberty to act as he likes, as he is hidden from view by a surface observer. Much harm can be done to riverbank stability by removal of gravel thus undermining the banks.

It is doubtful as to whether the fully mechanized methods will be practicable and sustainable for to the gem fields of Sri Lanka. Because of the small-scale operation in traditional type of gemming by pitting or dredging the possible impacts are of a minor scale and rectification would be less difficult to manage than in a large-scale operation. Large tracts of land would be required in a fully mechanized venture and a complete Environmental Impact Assessment would be mandatory. Allocation of large tracts of land or river will deprive the people of the mining community of their opportunities of livelihood and the possible life time chances of alleviating their poverty through gemming activity in such terrain.

The withholding of accessibility to potential gem fields where the commoner has interests can lead to unrest and increase the unemployment problem. There are nearly 30,000 to 40,000 thousand gem pits being operated annually which provides additional income to nearly 150,000 people per mining season. Most of the labor involved in the gemming industry is from low income groups while their efforts contribute to nearly 60% of the total income from mineral exploitation in Sri Lanka.

Aruni Phonphong – Editor in Chief and Managing Director of Aruni Gems International Trading Co., Ltd   (Thailand)