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gem miningA tropical island in the Indian Ocean, smaller than Scotland or Tasmania and half the size of the State of New York, Sri Lanka nonetheless possesses infinite variety, rich scenic beauty, unusual water, mineral, and biotic resources, and an ancient cultural heritage.

Sri Lanka's location, astride the sea routes between the East and the West, exposed it to wide cultural and political influence throughout its history. The island was well known to travelers of many nationalities from ancient times and its reputation for precious stones, spices, elephants and scenic beauty is documented in the tales of Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Chinese.

Gemstone mining as a traditional industry in Sri Lanka runs way back to the era of ancient kings. The traditional, environment friendly and ethical mining methods practiced under the regulatory supervision of the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA) have set many benchmarks in the international Gemstone Mining Arena. Furthermore traditional mining methods perfected over centuries have indeed been the primary reason for the minimum incidents of mining accidents recorded in Sri Lanka.

The most commonly used Gemstone mining method in Sri Lanka is Pit-Head Mining and Tunneling. Surface Placer Mining and River Bed Dredging are the other methods used widely.

The NGJA in it's vision to uplift and improve the quality of life and living standards of the Gemstone Mining Community has effectively introduced a series of industry favorable rules and regulations. Mechanisms such as life insurance policies, accidental and disability compensations including mortality and educational scholarships for children have been introduced as mandatory employment per-requisites governing the Mining Industry.

Methods of Gemstone Mining

The mining method applicable is dependent on the mode of Gemstone bearing gravel occurrence. Three main techniques engaged in this process are:

Traditional Methodology of Gemstone Mining

In their natural state, the gemstone minerals occur in thin layers of gravel and sand termed "illam" in river beds and alluvial flood plains, as rounded pebbles and worn fragments. Most gemstone pits contain several layers of illam that lie above the underlying decomposed bed rock termed "Malawa". Gemstone Mining Most gemstone mining has changed little in Sri Lanka since it began. The most common method is small scale pit mining with lateral tunneling. Riverbed mining is also common. Pit mining, by far the most common method, involves construction of vertical mines as deep as 30 meters, with horizontal tunnels averaging about 10 meters in length. ]

Gemstone gravel is removed from the illam and washed and sorted it in wicker baskets placed in water. The swirling motion during washing separates unwanted lighter materials from the heavier gemstone materials that are then collected and identified.

Mechanical equipment is largely limited to the pumps required for removing water that accumulates in the gemstone pits. Relatively inexpensive and easily available labor has made this simple, almost primitive mining method viable for many decades.

Streambed mining involves the damming of streams and small rivers by logs, sand bags and other materials. Workers use long shovels and mamoties to drag streambed material above the dam, there to separate out and store the heavy mineral fraction, which includes gemstones, for later washing and sorting.

Under the Mining Laws of Sri Lanka, the State is the sole owner of all minerals whether found on the surface or beneath it, and no person can mine or otherwise exploit gemstones without the authority of a mining license. Once a license is issued for gemming, the actual mining of the property is carried out on a remarkable system of cooperative sharing of labour, expenses and profits, and the out put of the venture is distributed as follows -

  • Ground rent for the owner of the land - 20 percent.
  • Lessee or license holder's share - 10 percent.
  • Financier's share - 35 percent.
  • Miner's share - 35 percent.

Thus each individual engaged in gemming gets a share. This system of sharing is unique in mineral economics and has been the mainstay of the gem industry where the risks are high.