Myanmar jade rush muddies promise of change, fuels conflict

By ESTHER HTUSAN, Associated Press

HPAKANT, Myanmar (AP) — Villagers in the jungles of Myanmar’s northern Kachin state stand upon staggering wealth: Jade worth tens of billions of dollars. Yet they see almost none of that money, even as the precious stone is dug out from under them.

They’ve lost land, homes and entire communities to jade mining. The industry was worth more than $30 billion last year according to a new estimate by Global Witness, a group which investigates misuse of resource wealth. But there is so little investment in the region that cars on the main road to the state capital need elephants to rescue them from the mud. And while big, well-connected companies rake in most of the jade, informal miners risk and often lose their lives digging for the scraps.

At one site, dozens of men balanced on a shifting hillside of dirt and rock, jabbing with metal-tipped sticks for the telltale ring of jade as a house-sized dump truck disgorged its load of earth. A basketball-sized boulder tumbled from the dump bucket and barreled down the white and gray slope. The bright-shirted jade pickers scattered in all directions, and as soon as the danger passed they were back, jabbing the dirt again.

In another corner of the 55 square miles transformed into moonscape by the jade industry, several men were buried alive in May when one of the mining-waste mountains collapsed. Photographs taken by a local man showed four corpses pulled from the dirt, streaked with dust and bloodied. They are among dozens maimed or killed in the past year.

Myanmar has changed much in the four years since a notorious military junta gave way to a nominally elected government and the long-isolated nation began opening up to the world. The biggest change for Hpakant, the center of the jade industry, is that the pace of mining has turned frenetic. The lifting of many sanctions by the West has made it easier for local companies to import the battalion of Caterpillar, Volvo, Komatsu and Liebherr machines that now dig and haul around the clock

Researchers believe the dark green rocks that can be the size of giant boulders are enriching individuals and companies tied to Myanmar’s former military rulers. The rapacity and industrial scale of the effort to extract jade is fueling a separatist conflict in Kachin state. And it is adding to doubts about the government’s commitment to political reforms and fair economic development since ending its international isolation in 2011.

“Many people have been killed because of these huge mining companies. We hate these companies,” said Kai Ra, a member of a group that formed a year ago after there was no accountability or compensation for children and adults killed by trucks and landslides. “It’s so painful to see these huge machines and whenever we see these earthmovers, we think these are murderers,” she said

In January, a landslide of unstable waste earth killed at least 30 jade pickers, according to lawmaker Kyaw Soe Lay. The tragedy barely registered beyond Hpakant, the epicenter of jade mining in Kachin, and no official death toll has been announced.

Authorities carefully monitor the area, particularly prohibiting foreigners, partly because of clashes between the military and independence fighters seeking autonomy for Kachin. Apart from rains, only attacks by Kachin fighters have interrupted the mining. The Associated Press gained access to Hpakant this year, interviewing residents and recording images that show a reckless rush to cart away the area’s riches.

Jade is most prized in Myanmar’s giant northern neighbor China and is more valuable than most precious gems: Last year, a jade bead necklace was sold for $27.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. The Global Witness report released Friday estimates Myanmar’s jade trade, official and illicit, was worth $31 billion in 2014. That dwarfs Myanmar’s famous opium poppies, estimated by the United Nations at $340 million last year.