MAC: Mines and Communities

Tarnished Metal: The human cost of mining for riches in Kachin State

Published by MAC on 2005-10-15

Tarnished Metal: The human cost of mining for riches in Kachin State

Khun Sam: The Irrawaddy

October, 2005

The lure of gold in Burma’s Kachin State has a fatal tarnish—HIV/AIDS, the killer virus which threatens to reach epidemic proportions in the mining communities of this northernmost region.

Gam Awng (not his real name) worked hard to build up a small mining enterprise. Too hard. Like many miners he turned to drugs for relief from the drudgery of hacking out a pitiful livelihood. Gam Awng died some months ago, but not from overwork. He contracted AIDS, either from using dirty hypodermic needles or associating with prostitutes. His widow doesn’t know the cause, but she has other concerns—she is pregnant, and a routine blood test revealed that she has AIDS. The chances are that her baby will be born with the virus.

A in red camp light disctrict miningStatistics released by UNICEF show that at least 10,000 pregnant women are diagnosed HIV positive throughout Burma annually. Up to 4,000 children are born with the virus every year. The problem in Kachin State is blamed partly on the lifestyle of Kachin’s miners, many of whom are young men who work away from their families. Prostitution is rife in mining areas, and a report issued in July by the US Council on Foreign Relations says up to 77 percent of Kachin State’s prostitutes are HIV positive. A similar percentage of the state’s heroin users is thought to carry the disease.

The story of one 30-year-old woman, mother of two young children, is typical. She tried to make a living by selling food and other supplies to mining communities, but drifted into prostitution because the money was so much better. “Prostitution is the only way for me to support my family,” she says.

A Kachin woman pastor says even students turn to prostitution in Kachin State to help pay their college fees and living expenses. “It’s a common phenomenon among young Kachin women,” the pastor says. From prostitution it’s only a few steps into drug addiction. A former NGO worker says: “First of all they become sex workers, then they turn to drugs and alcohol and finally have to sell sex for drugs.”

Mining for gold and jade in Kachin State became big business after the Kachin Independence Organization reached a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese junta in 1994. The ceasefire allowed the regime and the KIO to open up areas rich in gold, jade and minerals and to grant lucrative concessions to mining companies. Operations are now concentrated along the Irrawaddy River, the N’Mai Hka area north of Myitkyina and regions around Tanai (the Chindwin River), Hpakant, Seng Tawng and the Hukawng valley. And it’s precisely here that the incidence of AIDS is highest.

Kachin Environmental Report Banned

Khun Sam: IRROL

October 14, 2005

The Kachin Independence Organization has censored an environmental report by a community development organization, effectively banning it. The organization, the Pan Kachin Development Society, says the KIO was concerned that the report affected its image and possibly its relations with the Rangoon regime.

The report covers environmental destruction in Kachin State, particularly through illegal logging. The KIO is one of Burma’s ethnic minority groups which have a ceasefire agreement with the junta.

Bau Naw Ja, the PKDS’s executive director, told The Irrawaddy the KIO had instructed that the report needed to be censored, because it should not affect the regime, the KIO or relations between the two. The report was originally intended for printing in early October. It had been submitted for censorship to the KIO in early 2004, when the former insurgent group had decreed its censorship powers.

Another member of the PKDS said he thought the KIO did not want its image to be affected by any report of environmental destruction in the state. “We in fact conducted this with as positive a view towards the KIO as possible,” he said. “But it seems we can’t write anything here.” The PKDS is based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where it is operated by Kachin.

Gold Diggers: Big companies push small prospectors aside in hunt for Burma’s riches

Charles Large: The Irrawaddy

October 2005

In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen tells Alice: “A word means what I want it to mean.” That sums up in one sentence the state of Burma’s statute books—particularly those decrees relating to mining the country’s rich resources. Roger Moody, in his 1998 “Report on Mining in Burma,” put it more directly. The law on mining passed by the Rangoon regime in 1994, he said, “is not just one, but a parade of farts in a bucket.”

The law makes no provisions for holding mining companies responsible for failure to stabilize workings and waste piles, nor for rehabilitating closed mines. There are no requirements for an environmental and reclamation bond to be posted by a mining company, no need for an environment and social impact assessment, nor for an independent monitor to ensure compliance during mining and post-closure operations.

The law allows private citizens to prospect for gold, but they are not permitted to use machinery. People granted permits must sign an agreement to turn over 30 percent of their refined gold to the Ministry of Mines. Citizens are also permitted to pan for placer gold found in streams, although they are increasingly being edged out by Chinese contractors dredging the Irrawaddy River.

Little protection is offered by the law to employees of foreign mining companies. Says Moody: “There seems to be no proper prescribing of... wages, salaries and other fees (for workers) nor the fixing of working days or safety, health, and welfare plans per se in this law nor in any law or regulation. We are also told that if the State so decides, the land can be compulsorily acquired in accordance with the existing law, while public water can also be sequestered by permission (presumably from the government) for company purposes, if its use is really necessary.” So the government can appropriate anyone’s land for mining purposes and authorize water use with no thought to contamination.

The 1994 law is merely an invitation to exploitative mining companies to apply for a permit and to carry on as they wish, providing that all fees are paid to the proper persons and agencies. Human rights groups say that far from protecting workers’ rights, the law turns a blind eye to exploitation and the use of forced labor, which enable mining companies in Burma to extract gold at a cost at least 20 percent lower than anywhere else in the world.

Human rights groups say that gold mines, in addition to many other industries, use forced labor. Local contractors affiliated with the army provide the workers, so foreign companies are able to deny complicity in their labor practices.

In 1981, Canadian-born Robert Friedland launched his first mineral venture, Galactic Resources. Galactic opened a gold mine at Summitville, Colorado, in 1985. Shortly afterwards, cyanide solution began overflowing from ore heaps, along with acidic wastes laced with heavy metals. Mining was halted in 1991, but heap leaching continued until 1992, when the US Environmental Protection Agency belatedly stepped in. Galactic was declared bankrupt in 1993. Final cleanup costs will exceed US $100 million. With the EPA in hot pursuit, Friedland fled.

Friedland bought his way into a Canadian company, Golden Star Resources, which sealed a deal with Cambior of Canada and the government of Guyana to exploit gold fields in that South American country. In 1995 the tailings dam collapsed, sending millions of cubic meters of diluted cyanide and heavy metals into Guyana’s Essequibo River. These disasters earned Friedland the epithet “Toxic Bob.”

In the same year as the disaster in Guyana, the Burmese regime began offering large stakes of Burma’s mineral resources to outside companies, and Friedland’s Ivanhoe Myanmar Holdings secured eight of the initial 16 concessions. Ivanhoe is now prospecting for gold south of Mandalay. Two other companies, Canada’s Leeward Capital Corp and Jet Gold, are also test drilling on a gold mining concession of 70,000 hectares in northern Shan State, a project where the Burmese regime holds a 25 percent stake.

In 1996, Friedland acquired 50 percent of the Monywa copper project, the largest in Burma, sharing ownership with the state-owned Mining Enterprise 1. Copper mining produces the largest amount of uncontrolled and dangerous wastes in the industry, and people living near the Ivanhoe workings soon reported skin irritation from water polluted by discharges from the plant. In 2004 the company’s board of directors issued a statement saying: “Extensive training has been provided to enable the workforce to operate state-of-the-art, zero-emission technology.” Again, the truth was being bent to suit the circumstances—even the most developed nations do not have zero-emission technology. Even if zero-emission technology is installed and correctly operated, it will probably come too late to reverse the environmental damage caused so far by mining operations in Burma.

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