Profits over human life: Myanmar’s deadly jade mines

Photo:Yim Min Tun

Year after year, landslides in Myanmar’s jade mines kill hundreds of workers. Authorities place profits ahead of human lives.

By Joelyn Chan

The Hpakant jade mining pits in Kachin state are one of Myanmar’s key natural assets. Around 300,000 migrant labourers extract US$31 billion of the precious stones annually. This is nearly half of Myanmar’s gross domestic product (GDP).

A jade mine in Kachin State.
Photo:Yin Min Tun

The jade mines are also known for tragedy. About 807 deaths were reported in Myanmar’s jade mines between 2015 and 2018. Without the resources or means to extract the bodies, victims’ remains are rarely found, buried under deep layers of mud.

In April 2019, the latest tragedy occurred in Hpakant. It claimed at least 54 lives overnight. An abandoned mining pit, containing wastewater and discarded mining materials, collapsed. As it buckled, it dumped mud on the miners working below.  Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE) investigated the incident and attributed the disaster to the instability of the earth.

Samples of raw jade
Photo:Sarang/Wikimedia

Landslides in Hpakant are inevitable with environmental degradation 

Hpakant’s terrain is extremely unstable. The various mining companies dump earth without any thought for risks present. To maximise space, mines are narrow and deep. These unstable structures make them a ticking time bomb for landslides. The landscape is also littered with abandoned mines, adding to its geological instability.

Since the adoption of large machinery in the mining process, environmental destruction is occurring at a faster rate. The upcoming monsoon rains from May until October will likely trigger more mudslides, causing more deaths.

Hpakant sits right at the jade industry’s epicentre

According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Commerce, exports increased 68% to US$761.4 million in the 2018 fiscal year. Myanmar produces about 70% of the world’s jadeite.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for action in 2016 and pressure from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), few safety improvements have occurred. The financial gains from jade trade seem to outweigh the value of human lives.

Migrant workers willingly flock to the mines, in hopes of better lives with the discovery of a rare gem. According to Maung Aye, a villager who left his family home for Hpakant: “Life is too hard for us in our home village, we can’t earn enough income, while we can easily get 5,000 to 10,000 kyats per day here”. The average salary in Myanmar is 4,800 kyats (US$3.12) a day. For the poor villagers, the potential gains outweigh the treacherous dangers from jade mining.

A jade mine in Kachin State.
Photo:Yin Min Tun

Myanmar’s maiden jade and gemstone policy is disappointing

In 2018, the government drew up the nation’s first jade and gemstone policy. It sought the help of the private sector and foreign institutions to construct a set of guidelines designed to improve the sustainability, social impact and safety of the mining industry.

However, the document was lacking in many key areas. The situation has not improved.

The Myanmar military’s deep involvement in the country’s mining industry represents a conflict of interest. There have been allegations that some of Myanmar’s military elites are hidden license holders.

The MGE, tasked with industry regulation operates under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. At the same time, it is also an operator-owner in joint ventures with private mining corporations.

It is therefore hardly surprising that large companies are often not held to account for unsafe working practices which cause accidents. Some of the workers who died during April’s tragedy came from Nine Golden Dragons and Myanmar Thura. However, authorities did not suspend the companies’ mining blocks.

Maw Htun Aung from Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) said, “Regulators remain underfunded and unable to inspect the hundreds of mining operations”. The country manager also added, “Nobody follows the safety procedure”.

Grey areas and loopholes allow companies to disregard any safety reform and focus on profits.

If the world is waiting for the high death toll to hit the headlines before taking action, change will never come. The full death tolls of landslides often remain unknown due to the inability to track unregistered migrant labourers.

Every day, countless lives are at risk. Until more regulations are enforced, the nation is leaving the lives of miners in the hands of impending disasters.