At one of the jade mining pits that scar the mountains of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, a miner recalls how five of his friends died during a landslide two years ago. “I was so scared,” he says. While working in areas where there have been previous landslides, he says he has discovered dead bodies and buried them. Testimonies heard by the Guardian reveal a deadly environment where lethal landslides and equipment failures strike regularly, in an industry with a history of human rights abuses, corruption and environmental destruction. “At first it was so scary for me,” says another worker. “But it’s becoming natural … We started accepting that we could die in any situation.” Conditions in the country’s jade trade – estimated to be worth more than $30bn (£23bn) a year – are notoriously treacherous for the estimated 300,000 migrant labourers at the Hpakant mines, claiming scores of lives every year. Yet Myanmar’s parliament has passed a controversial bill governing the gemstone sector, paving the way to restart the licensing of mining companies after a two-year moratorium.
The industry has fuelled a brutal, decades-long civil war in Kachin state, but in 2016 hopes of reform had been raised when Aung San Suu Kyi’s government stopped issuing new gemstone permits until sustainable environment plans were put in place. Optimism was further heightened by proposals to create a fresh nationwide policy in line with global standards under the extractive industries’ transparency initiative. Civil society groups have been stunned by the government’s decision to develop and implement a gemstone law separately from the policy, failing to adopt key parts of the latter that were widely praised by experts. “There’s been basically no attempt by parliament to involve itself or align its law with the policy,” says Paul Donowitz, Myanmar campaign leader for Global Witness, who published a landmark report into the jade industry in 2015. “We have concerns about the process and that is amplified by the very powerful interests involved in the sector, whether they be military cronies or Chinese businesses.”
Maw Htun Aung, Myanmar country manager for the Natural Resource Governance Institute, says, “We are concerned that the government will use the new gemstone law as a justification to restart the issuing of mining licences to companies without addressing the root cause of the problem that had led to the moratorium.” The law does not include the policy’s recommendation that beneficial ownership – whereby the owners of companies are made public – should be implemented, or that the behaviour of companies with a track record of human rights abuses, environmental damage and corrupt practice should be taken into account when issuing mining permits. Nor does the law factor in plans to curb illegal mining by companies – a growing problem – or tackle conflicts of interest within the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which acts as both a regulator issuing licences and a business controlling lucrative mines through joint ventures with numerous companies. In what appears to be an attempt to reduce the industrial-scale operations that have amassed over the past decade, the law limits the length of permits and size of mining block areas. But policymakers have said that, despite good intentions, this measure will not provide enough space or time to practice environmentally friendly work. “Mining sites should be 50 or 100 acres, but the law just allows three or five acres,” says Mung Dan of the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, which was involved in the drafting of the separate policy. “This won’t be environmentally sustainable.”
Myanmar produces about 70% of the world’s jade stone, with Global Witness valuing the market at $31bn a year. But as much as four-fifths of the country’s jade is smuggled abroad, the vast majority to China, meaning hundreds of millions are lost by the country in tax revenue every year. Just $31m in sales was recorded at last year’s Gems Emporium, which is supposed to be the official marketplace for all high quality jade in the country. Control over revenues at the Hpakant jade mines in Kachin, believed to be Myanmar’s most valuable resource, have spurred an ongoing armed conflict between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence army, for nearly six decades. Another military group, the United Wa State army, also known as the Wa, has lucrative mining contracts that were given to them in 1994 in exchange for peace. “The jade trade and extraction is acting as a financial engine for the conflict in the area,” says Therese Sjöström, who carried out fieldwork in Kachin for international non-profit Swedwatch. “Locals have told us that unless the regulations around jade ensure a more fair and transparent distribution, it’s unlikely that peace negotiations will be successful.”
Many miners are unregistered labourers living in tarpaulin shelters, who increasingly come from all over Myanmar in the hope of finding a fortune. “There’s large-scale environmental destruction, people have lost their land, [there’s] a lack of jobs day by day, danger for miners around mining sites, and human rights violence by security guards, police and soldiers,” says Steven Law of the Kachin Development Networking Group. More than 100 miners were killed after a 60-metre high mountain of earth and waste collapsed in 2015. The mines are narrow and deep to maximise space, making them prone to landslides – particularly in the monsoon season, which is said to claim lives every day. Scores died in two separate incidents last year. Miners’ testimonies reveal a destructive environment in the community around the mines, with endemic heroin addiction, high rates of HIV and the commercial sexual abuse of women and girls. One miner says heroin is sold “openly, just like selling a movie ticket” in Hpakant, and that a friend of his disappeared for years without a trace. “One day he came and found me. His whole body was swollen,” he adds. “I asked him not to use it but he said that he couldn’t control himself any more. He’s dead now. There are no jobs in Hpakant for women except for working as a maid or in a massage parlour,” says a 26-year-old woman living in the community. The parlours are fronts for brothels, and many, many women are sexually abused.” Another simply adds, “My understanding is we have no government control.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Credits: Peter Yeung and Zaw Moe Htet for The Guardian, 25 February 2019.