Landslide buries Myanmar jade miners

An example of Hpakant’s prized jade. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Many people are missing after a major landslide at a jade mine in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State.

At least 104 bodies have been recovered with some reports saying more than 100 people were still missing.

The incident happened in Hpakant on Saturday when a huge amount of mining debris collapsed, engulfing miners’ homes.

It is unclear what triggered the event in the region, which produces some of world’s best jade.

Many of those killed made their living scavenging near the waste dumps in the hope of finding jade fragments.

Miners gouge out the ground before processing it and dumping the rocks that are not needed.

With China the main market, mine owners make hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The industry generated an estimated US$31 billion last year, with most of the profit going to companies tied to Myanmar’s military, according to Global Witness, an advocacy group focused on natural resources.

Hpakant remains poor, with bumpy dirt roads, regular electricity blackouts and high rates of heroin addiction.

After Myanmar’s junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government five years ago, many western sanctions were lifted and the already rapid pace of mining turned frantic.

“Large companies, many of them owned by families of former generals, army companies, cronies and drug lords, are making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year through their plunder of Hpakant,” said Mike Davis, the Asia director at advocacy group Global Witness.

“Their legacy to local people is a dystopian wasteland in which scores of people at a time are buried alive in landslides,” Davis added.

Mines can become unstable when too much displaced soil and rock builds up.

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher said: “It’s one of the areas in Myanmar designated ‘no foreigners’ (a somewhat flexible rule that doesn’t seem to apply to Chinese traders).

“We applied for permission and got it from the union government in Naypyitaw. Unfortunately, the chief minister of Kachin State didn’t concur so we were stopped from going, after several days of discussions. Burmese journalists on the other hand appear able to be able to work quite freely.”

Communications with this part of Kachin State are unreliable and details are hard to confirm, especially as foreigners are not allowed in the area.

“We have issued orders and warned the people not to build makeshift huts near mountains of dump soil and not to stay there,” an unnamed Hpakant Township official was quoted saying.

In October, Global Witness said the value of jade produced in 2014 was US$31 billion, the equivalent of nearly half the country’s GDP, but little is reaching residents or state coffers.

Many jade mining areas have been turned into a moon-like areas of environmental destruction.

Brang Seng, a jade businessman, who said he watched as bodies were pulled from the debris, said: “People were crying. I’m hearing that more than 100 people died. In some cases, entire families were lost.”

Community leader Lamai Gum Ja said that the landslide had flattened homes at the base of the mine dump.

He estimated that 100 to 200 people were still missing.

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