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CNN Today

Madagascar Poor in Material Wealth, Rich in Natural Wonders

Aired May 3, 2000 - 2:19 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries. It is struggling to rebuild after three cyclones devastated the nation in successive weeks. But while it lacks material wealth, the Indian Ocean island is rich in natural wonders.

And as CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports, that may mean better days ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From afar, it looks like a desert mirage; closer in, the California gold rush. Only it isn't gold they're digging for, it's sapphires.

Somewhere down in this hole is 24-year-old Kifra Rajoelison (ph), previously unemployed, digging because he says it's the only way to make money -- not much so far.

Likewise this, 26-year-old physics student, college career on hold.

(on camera): Like many others, these diggers have come from hundreds of miles away -- most of them young, most of them poor, most of them knowing that there are no jobs in their future in this country, most of them hoping to strike it rich so that they will have a future.

(voice-over): A future in a country where yearly income is around $260 but where the majority have no income at all. This mother of two small boys is earning just enough to convince her and her husband to stay a few more months, despite conditions where diggers wash their sapphires, bathe, drink, and get their water for cooking out of this increasingly polluted river; also, housing like this.

But still, they come, swelling this town from 25 households to upwards of 150,000 people, all pinning their hopes on gem dealers like these from as far away as Thailand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's the best place in the world.

HUNTER-GAULT: For them, perhaps, where some say they buy up to $15 million in gems in two weeks. But diggers say they are being exploited, being paid peanuts while the outsiders reap the big profits. Initially slow to act, the government is now trying to address this and other issues.

TANTELY ANDRIANANARIVO, PRIME MINISTER, MADAGASCAR: We really want people to have -- to share the exact value of what has been produced in this area, and this might take some time.

HUNTER-GAULT: Not long ago, Ilakaka looked like this. Now, with the promise of more gems in these here hills, this could look more like Ilakaka any day now.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, CNN, Ilakaka, Madagascar.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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