Precious stones of Niger

by Lynda Lawson

January 8th, 2018

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Niger is located in the Sahel and Sahara region of Africa with a surface area of 1,267,000 km2 and a population of over 18, 528,000 habitants, three quarters live in rural areas. The Niger River flows some 500 kilometres in a crescent shape through the capital Niamey linking Guinea, Mali with the Niger Delta in Nigeria. Niger is thus at the cross roads between the Maghreb of North Africa and Sub Saharan Africa and its long history as a trade route linking these areas has led to Niger’s rich ethnic and linguistic character.   The largest ethnic group is Hausa followed by Zarma/Songhai, Tuareg , Fulani (Peul) and Kanuri.

It has three climatic regions: three quarters of the country is desert and part of the Sahara, an area characterised by increasing heat and diminishing rain fall; the semi-arid Sahel zone it shares with Mauritania and Mali, and the small fertile region of the South West watered by the Niger River and its tributaries.

Natural Resources

Niger has significant natural resource reserves, especially uranium, gold, silver, coal, significant amounts of   iron, copper lithium, phosphate molybdenum and tungsten. It also has important reserves of limestone as well as salt, gypsum. Salt has traditionally been sourced and transported by caravan in Niger for centuries.

Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium producing (8% of world production). It is mined in the Agadez, a region in the north; this vast desert region makes up almost 52% of the total surface area of the country. Niger’s two uranium mines operated by the French company Areva are expected to cease production in the next 10 years and Niger is actively seeking alternative ways to exploit its other rich natural resources in particular gold.

Rarely mentioned in geological surveys are the gemstones found in the Agadez region; and to date their potential to provide a livelihood has not been explored.

Working for an Australian Government funded natural resource governance  project I visited Niger twice in 2017. Each time I went I was sought out by government officers who wanted to tell me about the precious stones of Agadez. This region of the country currently has travel restrictions which prevented me from visiting Agadez but on my most recent visit I was given carefully labelled samples and information about a gemstone cooperative in this desert town.

Niger has at least two trained gemmologists – Gem A trained Mohamadou Abou and Agadez Ministry of Mines officer, Mali Batoure. Both these men were trained at the Institut de Gemologie de Madagascar and I was introduced to them by their teacher Herizo Harimalala Tsiverisoa who is affiliated with the Gem Hub. Their skills bear testimony to the ongoing impact of the IGM as a provider of the highest quality gemmological training in French in Africa and to the Niger government who financed their training. They are actively seeking funding to establish a lapidary workshop to add value to the stones of Niger and to pass on the skills they have learned to others in particular women and youth.

Gemstones of Agadez

In Agadez there is the Cooperative of Artisans of Ahler and the miners of the Agadez. Their overall aim is the improved production of cassiterite, precious and semi-precious stones. On their inventory they list agate, aquamarine, amethyst, beryl, emerald, garnet quartz, topaz, zircon, tourmaline, ruby. There is little actual mining of gemstones and a typical scenario is that a peasant farmer will come across an interesting stone when working in the field and will take it to the cooperative or the Ministry of Mines officers. In the past tourists frequently visited Agadez and would buy these stones in the rough but with security concerns this no longer posssible. An opportunity exists to conduct a geological survey of gemstones in the region, to train local people in gemstone identification and to create a community lapidary.

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This Tuareg cross is known as the Bagzan cross as it is thought to originate in the Bagzan Mountains in the north of Niger; many gemstones like the amethyst, aquamarine and topaz pictured here, are found in this region. Terazer is a Tuareg jeweller working in Agadez but selling to the international community in the capital Niamey. Their work does not incorporate local gemstones.

 Gem A trained Mohamadou Abou and Agadez Ministry of Mines officer, Mali Batoure, with Lynda Lawson in Niamey 2017.

Gem A trained Mohamadou Abou and Agadez Ministry of Mines officer, Mali Batoure, with Lynda Lawson in Niamey 2017.

 Silver and ebony jewellery made by Tuareg silver smiths

Silver and ebony jewellery made by Tuareg silver smiths

Niger also has a long tradition of high quality silver smithing in particular among its Tuareg people living in the Agadez region. They use a range of techniques including the lost waxed method to create items of unique character ad beauty which may be embedded in precious rare timber from Mali or enhanced by local leather thongs. They incorporate desert motifs such as the Tuareg crosses, the most famous cross being the cross of Agadez which is one of Niger’s most iconic cultural symbols.

Through the Gemstone Hub we hope to encourage and promote this activity as a rich source of value addition and skills development for youth and women and to assist in the promotion of a wonderful resource in which Niger takes pride. Three steps can be envisaged: learning to identify stones, cutting and polishing these stones and incorporating these stones into Nigerien silver jewellery and small silver objects. Such activity provides a valuable new area of development in a remote region, which is seeking new ways to exploit mineral resources other than uranium. In doing so Niger will draw on its long and rich material culture and traditions and create opportunities to promote it in new ways for the future.

 Source Nations On Line project

Source Nations On Line project

Niger is bounded by seven countries: on the South by Burkina Faso and Benin, Nigeria to the east by Chad, to the west by Mali and the north Algeria and Libya. It is significantly impacted by extremist Islamic activity on its borders with Mali and Libya. It has one of the fastest growing and youngest populations in Africa and is facing very significant development challenges.