“We wanted to have my son’s portrait up but the children just keep crying,” explains Seng Roi as she reaches into a box under a wooden bed and retrieves her son’s portrait.
Marandong Dee Ram had decided to work in Myanmar’s jade mines so he could afford to build a house for his family. He worked in the mines for six years, until he was killed in a landslide.
“He knew it was dangerous in the rainy season, but he decided to go there [to the mines] because he thought he was wasting time just staying at home doing nothing,” recounts Seng Roi in her native Rawang tongue.
The Rawang are one of over seven tribes indigenous to Kachin State. Their Kachin land is home to Hpakant, the world’s largest jade mine.
Marandong Dee Ram is one of over 500 informal jade miners—also known as jade pickers—who have been killed in landslides in the past five years.
A lack of choices
In Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State in northern Myanmar, only half of homes have electricity, and schools and the local hospital are severely under-resourced.
As a civil war between the Myanmar army and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) continues to be waged over the resource-rich land, jade mining is one of the only sectors in which Kachin people can earn an income to support their families.
Many freelance jade miners come from surrounding Kachin land, landless after being displaced. Others are migrant workers from as far as western Rakhine State, marred by another crisis, the Rohingya violence.
They also come with varying levels of education. Freelance miner Jaw San Aung, for example, turned to the mines to support his university studies: “Our family has financial difficulties, so I started digging jade stone when I was about 19 after I passed my final matriculation exam.”
An increase in landslides
Francis Saw Htoo is a Kachin activist who’s trying to document the situation in the mines and shed light on the plight of jade pickers, who get reduced to mere digits in a death count when things go wrong.
“This year alone, more than one hundred have been killed in the landslides,” he says, adding that the number could actually be much higher as many bodies are never recovered. Two of the biggest landslides struck in July and August, no more than two weeks apart.
Francis Saw Htoo’s organisation, Humanity Institute, says that mining companies fail to follow standards of dumping jade tailings—a mixture of rock waste, usually silt-sized dirt with potentially bits of jade, dug up by mining companies—in a systematic safe way, and that there are major gaps in environmental standards. Humanity Institute is one of the only grassroots organisations to document the struggles of jade scavengers. They released their report, Journey of the Blood Jade, in Kachin State in July. The report included a record of landslides per year with the estimated number of landslide-related deaths, as well as interviews with miners detailing working conditions inside the mines.
As a civil war between the Myanmar army and Kachin Independence Army continues to be waged over the resource-rich land, jade mining is one of the only sectors in which Kachin people can earn an income to support their families
During the monsoon months, mining companies pile tailing waste high, creating unsafe mounds of dirt. This increases the risk of landslides, warns Francis Saw Htoo: “The government cannot manage this issue so companies do things their own way… They do whatever they like, throwing [waste] here and there and through the rainy season.”
Natural Resources Governance Institute (NRGI), an international watchdog group, says a combination of short-term permits given to mining companies contribute to mining companies mining as quickly as possible to get as much out of the ground as they can, with little regard to environmental management or health and safety.
“Right now tenures are short, kept at five years at the most, which creates opportunistic mining… the government also needs to put it explicitly that if you are mining responsibly this will affect whether the government will extend your mining permit,” says NRGI country director Maw Htun Aung.
In the mines in Hpakant, a town in Kachin State, there’s also a near total lack of exploration or planning. The common international practices of understanding the quality of the mine site, and of the government assessing feasibility studies before approving the size of a mine, are non-existent.
The short license period also creates a lack of incentive for mining companies to make any long-term investment with proper mine designs. Instead, companies dig as deep as they can with very steep pit walls, another contributor to landslides. The small land block given for most of the licenses also does not have enough space to manage dump waste rock.
The urgent need for protection
There are no laws that protect informal miners, but Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE), which sets the tax rates and oversees the jade industry, says small jade miners or pickers will be included in the new jade policy. The policy is now in its third draft, and has been crafted by tripartite teams from civil society organisations, the NGO Myanmar Alliance for Transparency, and the government. The authorities say the it’ll crack down on any illegal activity.
MGE vice chair Than Zaw Oo says “we have a chief officer to inspect the mining sector, he can inspect any time, not [just] for unusual situation[s].”
But jade pickers say that fines are rarely given out to companies who overstay their contract terms, or aren’t mining responsibly.
“We notice bribery along the road to Hpakant and companies whose contracts have expired can keep on doing their business… drug dealers can do transactions freely too,” says a miner who asked not be named.
Revisions to the 1995 Myanmar Gemstone Law—separate from the 1994 Myanmar Mining Law—has been criticised for not going far enough to address the disclosure of beneficial owners, payments and licence terms of mining companies. In a recent report, NRGI highlighted the need for more oversight of illegal or informal miners as, without access to adequate education, “citizen miners fall victim to predatory lending, unfair valuation, and other forms of manipulation practiced by gemstone traders.”
The 2018 Gemstone Bill is currently being discussed in Parliament. Yet Hanna Hindstrom, senior campaigner from watchdog group Global Witness, points out that “worryingly, only the Upper House version has been made public and there has been little public input or awareness of the bill—a symptom of the secretive nature of the drafting process.”
Concern has been raised that the final version of the law won’t include provisions from the third draft of the more progressive gemstone policy to prevent companies with a track record of human rights abuses, environmental destruction, corruption and violence from obtaining new licenses.
Yet MGE’s Than Zaw Oo says they plan on implementing clauses to address labour conditions for miners, plus the introduction of new criteria for smaller mining licences suitable for artisans and small-and-medium-sized enterprises in the revised policy being drafted: “We discussed scavengers and [licenses for them] will be granted by the regional government.”
Francis Saw Htoo says he’ll wait to see the government’s promises turn into action. Overall, he says a mindset change is urgently needed, and that mining companies must treat jade pickers with respect and dignity.
Miners have reported that companies have simply continued tipping rock waste in areas struck by landslides, effectively burying bodies further and undermining efforts to try and uncover people stuck under the rubble and mud. Families have to search for their loved ones by looking out for scars or tattoos; bodies have to be identified quickly, before dump trucks empty more rock waste.
Maung Yamai Aung Kham, the brother of a deceased jade picker, says rescue efforts following a landslide can be chaotic: “Some family wrongly claimed the bodies and had to change later.”
He puts it bluntly: businesses don’t care about jade pickers: “The body of my brother appeared two days after the incident; companies did not stop discarding their tailings. The landslide struck at 6am and they discarded tailings again at noon.”
All families interviewed by New Naratif say they want the government to monitor dumpsites in the mines and issue fines and tougher penalties to mining companies not meeting the conditions of their licenses.
No choice but to work in the mines
Mai Lin, a newly widowed mother of four, worries about supporting her children through school. She’s angry that companies take no responsibility for dangerous mining, and says “companies should ban jade pickers from entering dangerous areas.”
But Stephen Naw Aung from the Kachin Development Network Groups says a lot of local Kachin people don’t want the mines to be closed; instead, “we want proper safeguards.”
Despite the failure of the mining sector to respect jade pickers and protect them from landslides, Maung Yamai Aung Kham also says he doesn’t want the mines to close.
He says that “mines in the Hpakant region shouldn’t be shut down, because most of the people from Kachin State depend on them for their livelihood, but [companies] never take responsibility and dig more than 1,000 feet under the ground and the area is sensitive when it rains, so they shouldn’t use mine explosives [that create] a high risk of landslides.”
“Real enforcement” of the law
But clamping down on corruption in the mining sector isn’t going to cut it without better law enforcement in Hpakant in general.
Drug addiction, for example, is rampant, and also affects the mining industry. Drug dealers prey on miners, cashing in on people’s desperation to work longer and harder to find jade stones they can sell.
Former addict Jan Htoi La explains, “at first I snorted heroin that looks like black tar then later I started using yaba.” His main motivation to start using drugs was to “stay active” in the jade mines. But taking drugs in the mines often leads to risky behaviour—often scavengers will work through the night looking for stones and enter areas that may have unstable mounds of dirt. Theft and high rates of crime have also been recorded in Hpakant that groups such as Humanity Institute say are drug-related problems.
Jan Htoi La left the mines after three years and went to seek help at Myitkyina Baptist Church. He now works at a rehabilitation centre connected to the church, one of few around Myitkyina.
“Not once did I see any special [programmes] by the government, dealers arrested by the police or sending drug users to centres to help them stop,” says Jan Htoi.
Kachin activist Khon Ja agrees. She says the whole area of Hpakant is a crime hotspot in need of better control, but points to the lack of credible enforcers. “The question is still who will enforce the law? The army? The small number of police? The authorities have to really want to follow the rule of law.”
Libby Hogan is a multimedia journalist based in Yangon, Myanmar. Her work can be found in The Guardian, ABC and others.