American Ethnological Society
Oral Presentation Session
Sri Lanka has a vibrant tradition of small-scale colored gemstone mining. Other major mining centers have seen their colored gemstone industries formalized and consolidated, often into the hands of foreign companies working with local political and military elites. This process has gone hand-in-hand with the criminalization of artisanal mining. It has also led to violent clashes between state and private security forces and so-called illegal miners. In contrast, Sri Lankan gemstone mining policies have favored small, non-mechanized, local operations. Foreign mining companies have been prevented from entering the gemstone sector. A degree of informality in the mining sector has been tolerated and even encouraged. As a result, gemstone mining and trading employ thousands of people. In spite of Sri Lanka’s brutal history of inter-ethnic conflict, in the gemfields, Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese work side by side in relative peace and even prosperity. This paper, based on comparative ethnographic research conducted at gemstone mining sites around the world, will examine the extraction and commercialization of Sri Lankan sapphires. It will explore how sapphires circulate around the island and to trading centers in India, Thailand and Hong Kong. It will use the ethics of this informal economy to question corporate discourses of ethical extraction and social responsibility in gem mining.