Workers at a jade mine in Myanmar's Kachin State. Photo adapted from: Yin Min Tun / Wikimedia Commons
Workers at a jade mine in Myanmar's Kachin State. Photo adapted from: Yin Min Tun / Wikimedia Commons

A waste of lives

The scramble for jade in Myanmar's Kachin State.

One minute you are crouching on a steep slope, examining a round stone clutched in the palm of your hand. Then a rumbling deluge of mud, boulders, gravel. Crushing you and everything you came here for, the illusion of jade treasure, the struggle for bare survival. And you have disappeared.

The ongoing catastrophe in the Hpakant jade-mining region of Kachin State in northern Myanmar produces a grim roll call. 21 November 2015: more than 200 workers buried in their campsite. 25 December 2015: "waste mound" kills 50.  6 January 2016: 20 killed. 25 January 2016: 100 killed.  4 April 2018: 6 killed in landslide. 4 May 2018: at least 17 dead. 14 July, 2018: at least 15 confirmed dead, survivors believe over 100 buried. 24 July 2018: 27 "feared dead." 12 February 2019: 6 killed in "cliff collapse."

The conditions at Hpakant received some international attention after a 'mud lake' of liquified tailings (mining waste) buried at least 54 employees of three jade mining companies, on the night of 22 April 2019. Geographer Dave Petley of the University of Sheffield estimated nearly 1000 to have been killed in such Hpakant incidents from January 2015 through April 2019. Most recently, in the early hours of 28 July 2019, at least 15 workers, including employees of Yarzatarni mining company and security guards, were killed when a hillside suddenly collapsed on top of tents where they slept. All are casualties of Myanmar's economic focus on resource extraction, routinely conducted without protection for workers or the environment. They are victims of the lure of jadeite – precious jade.

Jadeite, found in commercial quantities mainly in Myanmar's Kachin State, is a hard, crystalline stone formed by subduction zone pressure. Traded mainly to neighboring China since 1784, jadeite became known as 'imperial jade' when it replaced nephrite, a more widespread mineral also known as jade, as an object of obsession among Chinese emperors. The hues of jadeite include famously vivid greens as well as white, lavender, blue and black. Depleted from the Uru River, a Chindwin River tributary, jadeite is now open-pit mined in the hilly terrain of Hpakant Township for dull-surfaced boulders, which may reveal brilliant interiors when sliced.

The inside story of the jade trade is one of mine workers suffering without reward while corrupt business entities accrue fabulous profits. Under the present Myanmar government, imperial jade is a classic conflict commodity, sparking clashes for its control, between Kachin armed groups and the Myanmar military. Hopes for a more equitable and sustainable jade mining sector have dimmed.

Scavenging life

Until the mid-1990s, jade mining was a medium-scale enterprise with local workers searching and digging for potentially lucrative stones. With what Global Witness, an organisation campaigning against resource-conflicts and corruption, has termed "the rise of the machines" since the mid-1990s, some skilled workers now find jobs operating heavy equipment or driving trucks. These workers can make a steady monthly income, although they may be exposed to explosions, vehicle accidents and landslides.

However, most migrant workers journeying from elsewhere in Myanmar to seek their fortunes in Hpakant will barely find subsistence there. They will join the hundreds of thousands of 'yemase' (meaning 'unwashed stones') workers sifting through hills of waste rock abandoned after concession-holders have removed stones of potential value from their excavation sites.  Usually working at night, the 'yemase' workers search for any possible fragments of jade that have been left behind.

Families of company-employed workers killed in landslides sometimes receive compensation. However, most Hpakant landslide victims are 'yemase' workers, and their families are not compensated. Most jade miners, itinerant workers without contracts, have no safety protections or job security.

Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) and other civil-society organisations document Hpakant's landslide casualties and try to advocate for workers, although such activities can be dangerous in Myanmar, where human-rights defenders and environmental investigators are frequently subjected to lawsuits, imprisoned or violently attacked. The Mining Workers Federation of Myanmar has only a few thousand members nationwide and faces many obstacles to labour organising.

Well-aware of the inequities of the mining sector, jade miners sometimes try to rise against the bosses. After a police officer guarding a company site shot and killed a Hpakant 'yemase' worker in June 2017, other workers set fire to the company's equipment. In May 2018, miners employed by Yadana Shwe Eaik protested a delay in their wages. When they destroyed equipment and burned buildings, 50 workers were arrested.

While Hpakant concession operators often tolerate or even encourage 'yemase' scavenging (usually for a cut of whatever the workers might find) concession owners sometimes resort to brutality to keep informal workers out. In at least two incidents in 2018, police guards shot at 'yemase' workers trying to enter 111 Company holdings. They wounded one person in February 2018 and killed five people in October 2017. Workers burned company equipment in retaliation. Global Witness and KDNG had previously reported in 2017 that 111 Company was operating with expired permits.

Jade mine workers live in squalid conditions. Over the years, makeshift camps have been crushed by landslides while hut-dwellers slept. Hpakant has long been notorious for the use of intravenous narcotics and high rates of HIV infection from shared needles, as miners visit "shooting galleries" to inject heroin or methamphetamine. Pervasive exploitation includes what The Guardian termed "the commercial sexual abuse of women and girls" in the miserable brothels of Hpakant.

With a sparse population (density under 20 per sq. km. as of 2014 census) the indigenous people of Kachin State have increasingly been supplanted at Hpakant by workers from elsewhere in Myanmar. "Indeed, some are of the opinion that bringing up such large numbers of YeMaSay/jade scavengers from lower Burma is a process aimed at upturning the Kachin demographic majority" commented Kachin civil society leader Lahpai Seng Raw.

Roving workers, often desperate farmers, trek north to the jade mines from as far away as coastal Rakhine State (Arakan). Rohingya Muslims face restrictions leaving the impoverished Rakhine State, but thousands of migrants from the Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group have sought work at Hpakant. Many migrant jade miners have subsequently been drawn into an Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO) called the Arakan Army, which was formed in 2009, to fight for an "Arakan Dream" of political autonomy or independence.

Out of control

Since its independence from British colonialism after World War II, Burma (now Myanmar) has sought to control the frontier lands of ethnic groups, such as the Kachins, and extract commodities found there. An array of EAOs have fought for control of their own resources. Situated along borders, some EAOs have traded in timber and minerals to finance their armies. Kachin jade, with long-established trade routes to China, has been a prime example of that dynamic.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an EAO founded in 1961, seeks autonomy in Kachin State, which borders Northeast India, Tibet and China's Yunnan Province. KIO dominance of cross-border jade trade to China helped make its formidable Kachin Independence Army (KIA) a well-armed force with as many as 10,000 soldiers. The Arakan Army was formed at KIA headquarters, under their sponsorship.

The KIO/KIA were in control of Hpakant and its artisanal jade mining operations until they lost territory following a 1994 ceasefire with Myanmar's military regime. The conflict resumed in 2011 and has continued under a democratically elected Myanmar government, but the KIO/KIA have not retaken the mines.

The KIO/KIA are still able to tax jade companies which need to transport their product through territory they control and they also engage directly in jade trading to China. Along with seeking political autonomy and safety from Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) troops, the control of resources such as mines (jade, gold and amber) has been a cause of continued KIO/KIA armed resistance.

In recent decades jade mining has become enormously profitable for serving and retired Tatmadaw officers, their families and associates. Estimates of jade sales for the peak year of 2014 have ranged from "as much as US$31 billion" according to Global Witness, to around US$6 billion according to a calculation by data analyst Yan Naung Oak. Jade profits have leveled off since 2014, reportedly due to a glut of lesser-quality product from large-scale Hpakant excavations. Nonetheless, the sector remains a significant component of Myanmar's economy.

Myanmar's central government claims ownership of all mineral resources and furnishes contracts for Hpakant mining concessions. According to 'Resource Federalism', a 2017 report by Burma Environmental Working Group, private jade-mining companies are usually in partnership with "the military run company" Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL), "or the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise."

UMEHL and Myanmar Gems Enterprise were both under United States import/investment sanctions under the 2008-2016 JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act. Import sanctions were also implemented by Canada, Australia and the European Union. When the US discontinued JADE Act sanctions in 2016, import/investment pressure on the Myanmar gem/jade sector ended.

Politically powerful, well-connected Myanmar multi-industrial companies and investment groups have been major jade players, including Asia World, Htoo Group, Ever Winner and the business enterprises of narcotics trade figure Wei Hsueh Kang. Joint ventures in jade mining with foreign companies (mainly from China) are also permitted and there are often 'shadow companies' or other covert forms of Chinese investment.

A selection of jade, from massive raw blocks to tiny polished cabochons is displayed and officially auctioned two or three times a year at government run Gem Emporiums in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. A government jade and gem emporium was also held in Myitkyina, Kachin State, for the first time in March 2018.

According to Global Witness estimates, 50-80 percent of jade mine output is smuggled across the border to China, avoiding government sales venues and tariffs. Mining and trading companies siphon off revenue without paying taxes that could benefit Kachin State. Their jade business is conducted without accountability or oversight. Myanmar's gem mining regulations have not included transparency of company ownership.

Market forces

Jade mining licenses are usually granted for short-term (3-5 years) extraction in hundreds of small three-acre concession blocks. This has pushed companies toward mining unselectively and as quickly as possible. Since 2014, the use of high-end equipment for mountaintop removal has accelerated the pace of excavation.

A 2018 investigative report by business oversight group Swedwatch criticised Caterpillar, Komatsu and Volvo Construction Equipment for selling large mining machinery and vehicles to jade-mining companies in Myanmar, without regard for impact. Their machines and trucks are used for excavation, transport of ore and dumping waste.

Consumer activist pressure was turned on jade and other gemstones after the Myanmar military's genocidal attacks on the Rohingya people of Rakhine State in 2016-17. Some very high-end retailers reacted to revelations of direct military involvement in the gem sector: "As part of our continuous review process to ensure ethical sourcing, Cartier has decided to stop purchasing gemstones from Myanmar, which will become fully effective as of December 8, 2017."

The traditional Chinese jade market so far seems impervious to such qualms about ethical sourcing, but that could change. Jade gifts have been associated with paying bribes to officials in China, so jade demand tends to dip during Beijing's periodic anti-corruption campaigns. Jade demand may also reduce if younger Chinese consumers begin to find jade rings and bangles unfashionable or even unsavoury, like the American millennials eschewing "conflict diamond" wedding rings. Chinese consumers have begun to heed warnings about the environmental cost of such traditionally sought-after products as shark's fins and elephant ivory. Awareness of the jade industry's ruin of Hpakant less than 300 km from the Yunnan border could conceivably have a similar effect on jade at the retail level.

Two decades of intensified industrial mining have had a devastating impact on Hpakant's environment. Deep digging has severely eroded the terrain of Hpakant, described by Global Witness as "turning its mountains into craters." According to the 'Resource Federalism' report, "The massive scale of jade mining operations in Hpakant has stripped and turned the landscape upside down."

The air around Hpakant is constantly dusty. Excavation explosions and drilling vibrations shake and fissure the earth. Some of the open pits and waste heaps are very close to houses, schools and other buildings. In February 2016, villagers of the Hpakant area protested the dumping of mining waste on their land, with a brief blockade of dump trucks.

The Uru River, which flowed freely through the Hpakant Valley, is now severely polluted and sedimented, its course altered by mining waste deposited from the slopes above. Mine tailings are hastily dumped to form new, dangerously unstable, hills. Wastewater from mining and rainwater fill abandoned concession sites, creating lakes and ponds. Tailings may be dumped into these, creating lahar-like flood hazards, like the mud lake which collapsed onto workers on 22 April 2019.

Reforms elusive

After the National League for Democracy won Myanmar's 2015 election, there was hope for reform of the mining sector, including that of jade and other gemstones. The Ministry of Mines was transferred to the new Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MNREC) under Minister Ohn Win, who put in process what was expected to be major reform of gem mining regulations. In 2016, the government suspended issuing jade mining permits or renewing existing ones.

Unfortunately, the 2016 permit suspension did not decrease environmental damage. Remaining concessions are often illegally shared by groups of companies and the last of them will not expire until 2021, according to an official of Myanmar Gems Enterprise interviewed by Frontier magazine.

Policy reforms promised by MNREC's Ohn Win were absent from a new gem-mining sector law passed by Myanmar's parliament in December 2018. The new law failed to include a vetting process to exclude companies guilty of past environmental damage and illegal activities, nor did it mandate transparency of concession ownership. As noted by Global Witness, "the law does not address serious conflicts of interest within the military-dominated Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which both regulates the gemstone industry and controls lucrative commercial stakes through joint venture agreements with companies." Under the 2018 regulations, permit duration is just five years and concession sizes limited to a mere three acres. Although perhaps intended to encourage a return to Hpakant's long-gone smaller scale of mining, these limitations actually incentivise dig-and-run mining with illegally shared concessions, reckless excavation and dangerous offsite tailings disposal.

The latest disaster may or may not force a change in the lack of oversight or enforcement at Hpakant. After the 22 April landslide, MNREC issued a stop-work order for 17 concessions. However, two companies directly involved, Myanmar Thura and Nine Golden Dragons, were not subject to the suspension. "They were just doing their work and the instability of the earth happened," Myanmar Gems Enterprise managing director Aung Myint Thein told Reuters reporters.

An editorial in the Yangon-based Frontier magazine on 23 May 2019 called for more drastic action:

"Under section 9 of the [Environmental Conservation] law, the government can declare an environmental emergency at Hpakant. It should do this and direct the Environmental Conservation Committee and Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation to halt all mining until a proper regulatory framework that meets international standards can be established."

Stopping all mining at Hpakant would mean putting tens of thousands of people out of work, although for the vast majority of jade miners this is less a form of gainful employment than it is a type of gambling with all the odds stacked against them. On 29 May 2019, Aung Nyunt Thein of Myanmar Gems Enterprise announced a slower process of jade mine concession-allotment, with new promises of increased oversight and transparency.

Whose jade?

Jade is part of Kachin cultural identity and pride. But it is a commodity relentlessly exploited for outside benefit and has become a curse on the land. Negligent and corrupt management of all aspects of jade mining by the central government allowed the ongoing disaster of Hpakant to happen. More local oversight and 'resource federalism', in which benefits and responsibilities are equitably distributed, could improve this dire situation.

As a statement by 61 Kachin civil-society organisations in 2016 put it, the best starting point would be "recognition that the people of Kachin State are the ultimate owners of all-natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water, and in the atmosphere in Kachin State." The Kachin civil-society organisations called for "Free, Prior, Informed Consent from local communities" with "Accountability and monitoring of corruption, environmental degradation, armed conflict and social problems relating to natural resources."

Hpakant's jade remains vitally important to Kachin interests. The KIO/KIA will fight to regain control of the mines and the Tatmadaw will fight to keep its business profits. Clashes between KIA and Tatmadaw broke out around Hpakant in 2011-12 and flared there again in 2015. Tatmadaw Light Infantry Division 33 (one of the main units accused of committing human-rights violations against Rohingya in 2017) was sent to Hpakant township in May 2018. That month, Tatmadaw troops fired grenades and artillery shells at a civilian village in Hpakant township.

Although far larger in number and the only side with air power, Myanmar's Tatmadaw has been unable to subdue the KIA militarily in eight years of post-ceasefire combat. There is little reason to expect the KIA to stand down without the prospect of putting jade mines and other resources back in Kachin hands. Any political solution to the war in the north must include an end to resource extraction by government military entities like Myanma Economic Holdings Limited as well as withdrawal of occupying Tatmadaw troops.

During the 1994-2011 ceasefire, the KIO/KIA did an extremely poor job of resource management, allowing Chinese logging companies to deforest their territory and Chinese gold miners to pollute rivers with mercury. The KIO/KIA appear to have become more responsive to civil society concerns during the current period of the war, so it is not unreasonable to expect them to do a better job of administering Hpakant than has the Myanmar government.

Eventually, Hpakant will possess no more jade to be found. When the mines are no longer profitable, will environmental restoration be possible? In 2015 a Kachin Member of Parliament, Khat Htein Nan, predicted the depletion of Hpakant's jade in 25-30 years. The pace of extraction has accelerated substantially since then. Lamawng La Tawng, a Hpakant community organiser, told Kachin News Group in May 2019, "Indigenous people own this jade land. Companies have excessively extracted jade from our land. Nothing is left. All that will be left in the next four to five years is soil. Indigenous people will suffer a lot. It's like we are being killed."

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