Hunting for jade in a corner of hell

From the dispassionate eye of a satellite in space, the area around Hpakant, a town in Myanmar's Kachin state, looks like a dry brown moonscape in a sea of green.

The mostly potholed dirt and gravel road to Hpakant twists through emerald hills; in the rainy season, it is reduced to reddish-brown mud, and wooden pontoons load vehicles two or three at a time to swing them across swollen rivers. Around Hpakant itself - a ramshackle organic boom town - over 850 jade mining firms operate over some 9,000ha.

On the ground, the mines are something out of a brutal pre-industrial era. Dump trucks rumble along the tops of high ridges, stick their rumps out and tip their heavy loads of earth and rock tailings from the mines down the slope into deep canyons gouged from the earth.

On the slope below, a small army of ragged young men scramble into the sliding rubble even before it has stopped moving, scrabbling through the dirt and heavy rocks scavenging for that one jade stone that may have escaped the mines.

One day last November, part of a cliff of earth and rock collapsed and roared down on the "mine pickers" killing 114.

It was not the first time, nor would it be the last. A video taken by someone at the mines on an unknown date, but posted online in June last year, showed the deadly force of one gigantic landslide as it roared through a gulch left by the mines. As a red and brown dust cloud boiled above, the thundering mass pulverised a heavy crane standing in its path. Below, the mine pickers fled for their lives. The most recent episode came on Jan 12, when landslides killed three people.

Landslides are common at ground zero for an industry that the British-based investigative NGO Global Witness has estimated was worth US$31 billion (S$44.6 billion) in 2014 alone - much of it outside government books. Most of the young men who bear the brunt of the hardship are migrants from all over Myanmar; many are hooked on heroin and methamphetamines as a result of the brutal conditions.

But the accidents, plus revelations in the Global Witness report which named a string of top figures - some of whom are in the current Cabinet - as profiting from their interests in the jade mines, have sparked debate. Pressure has come from long-time local residents, too; in October 2014, almost 5,000 wrote a letter to President Thein Sein detailing the devastation wrought by the mines.

"A limited number of capitalists have been granted permits for blocks, whereas local ethnic groups have been granted no jade blocks," the letter said. "Although certain companies are affiliated to ethnic groups, such affiliation is in title only and these companies are dominated by foreign nationals." The statement is referring to Chinese business interests.

"The mining companies are dynamiting the hills and mountains... prior to the expiry of their contracts, and they are acting solely for their own benefit in the excavation of valuable jade via short-term rather than long-term processes.

"Companies do not systematically stabilise sites where they have undertaken deep excavations and created reservoirs. Heavy rains cause reservoirs to burst and reservoirs are also sometimes destroyed intentionally, leading to the death of cattle and loss of property. However, the companies never take responsibility for such incidents. The huge vehicles used by the companies have left the streets congested and accidents are frequent," the residents wrote.

Now major mining companies, controlled by a handful of powerful and well-connected business people, are worried about changes when the National League for Democracy (NLD) forms a government in late March.

On Nov 26, just days after the deadly disaster that killed 114, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi told Radio Free Asia's Myanmar service: "This sort of accident is common just because there is no rule of law. It also reflects lack of due consideration for the safety of people's lives and property."

Myanmar media quoted NLD spokesman Nyan Win as saying: "We will have to review the existing regulations and, if necessary, will require the companies to have safe and adequate dump sites when they apply for licenses. If existing regulations have this provision, we will have to enforce it."

In Parliament on Dec 8, Myanmar's deputy minister of mines, Than Tun Aung, said his ministry planned to crack down on illegal prospecting and improve safety.

And Kachin MP Khet Tein Nan tabled a motion for the government to provide assistance to the migrants from all over Myanmar who risk their lives and limbs scraping a living picking through the tailings.

All this attention has led to miners redoubling their efforts, working extra hard, sometimes round the clock, to extract jade before any new regulations are announced. Working out a political settlement with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and regulating the jade mine industry, will be some of the most difficult challenges for the NLD government. A web of influential interests controls the trade and politics is a part of the mix; government negotiators were unable to bring the KIA to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed last October.

The "battle for control of jade revenues (is) a strategic priority for both sides in the conflict", said Global Witness. "The industry generates funds for both sides in a war that has claimed thousands of lives and seen 100,000 people displaced since it reignited in 2011."

At Hpakant, the business is in effect a free-for-all. "This is a kind of money laundering," Mr Khin Maung Myint, a newly elected NLD MP from Kachin state, told The Straits Times in a telephone interview.

"None of the companies obey regulations. According to the regulations, tender winners do not have the right to hand over their projects and do not have the right to sell or rent to others.

"If they break the rule, the government can ban their projects. But the price is low; one acre goes for one million kyat (S$1,110), so Chinese companies buy a lot. And people are not getting the benefits from the mining."'

Currently, "even the government gets only one out of 10 of the benefits", Mr Khin Maung Myint said.

The bulk of the money goes to lubricating the corrupt chain of army, militia and officialdom that sees the jade into China through three main routes, from the state capital Myitkyina, east and south to the China border, and from Mandalay to Muse on the border, where there is a Chinese duty-free zone known for its jade market.

The US$31 billion is about 48 per cent of Myanmar's official GDP and 46 times government expenditure on health. But locals remain largely poor. And the migrant mine pickers are at the bottom of the heap. To dull the edge of working for long hours in hard and dangerous conditions, many mine workers and scavengers have become addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

Sometimes, their bosses give them the drugs to extract more work from them. Rehab centres in Myitkyina are full of young men from the mines whose lives have been destroyed by drugs.

It is the big companies licensed by the government that make a real killing, Global Witness said after the big landslide last November.

"They are grabbing jade worth tens or hundreds of millions a year, while leaving locals and migrant workers to run the gauntlet of deadly landslides caused by the companies' reckless dumping practices," said Mr Mike Davis, its Asia director.

"The government must act to demonstrate that it is serious about ending the impunity that has turned Hpakant... into a small corner of hell for the people that live there."

This article was first published on January 19, 2016.
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