MAC: Mines and Communities

Burmese mining disaster claims over 100 workers' lives

Published by MAC on 2015-11-24
Source: Reuters, AFP

An urgent challenge for Ang San Suu Kyi

It's a shocking event which has wreaked a human toll five times greater than one in Brazil that occurred just a fortnight before (see: Samarco disaster: are we hearing the peoples voices?). Indeed, if and when accurate figures are divulged, it could be that some 200 persons have been klled as a result of a jade mining landslide late last week.

Brazil's "worst environmental disaster" (according to the country's environmental agency) has prompted lengthy media coverage around the world. But what happened last Saturday in northern Burma's Kachin state has merited precious little treatment in comparison.

No doubt one of the reasons for this stark contrast in reporting two very similar catastrophes, may be put down to Burma's "remoteness", and a ban placed on foreign journalists going to the area - though not, apparently, those from China.

At the same time, one can't escape feeling that several other factors played a more significant role.

The massive pile of waste and rubble that descended on jade miners in Hpakant clearly should never have been allowed to exist in the first place. However, the country is only just emerging from a brutal forty-year military dictatorship, with much of the country still under armed control. Unlike the Samarco project in Brazil, co-owned by two of the world's biggest mining companies, the provenance of Burma's Triple One Jade Mining  (officially identified as chief culprit in this case) is opaque to say the least - although the mine's main customers appear to be Chinese in origin.

There's also a distinctly distasteful element of "blaming the victim" in the quasi-official statement which have emerged, and reflected in some western media reports. The dead miners are depicted as little more than scavengers who shouldn't have lived or worked among the towering rubbles of rock, while local authorities claim that they'd already warned them against doing so.

So, even if we're duty-bound to acknowledge this as a "terrible tragedy", aren't we also allowed to ask: "What can you expect from people such as this, in a country like Burma"?

Post-election challenges

But, not only should we expect that pre-emptive and precautionary measures would have been taken to prevent such a mountain of debris rising up in the first place.  The fact is that the Burmese state has done little or nothing to enforce even minimal standards of mining, let alone to challenge a "jade rush" that's been one of the most signicant sources of its foreign exchange earnings.

It's also glaringly obvious from earlier statements by the undisputed winner of Burma's recent elections, Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD),  that the Nobel prize winner herself doesn't rate averting the human and environmental impacts of mining as playing a major role in implementing her party's "democratisation" policies.

This was clear when, two years ago, she refused to unequivocally back the widespread citizen protests against the Letpadaung mine, or criticise its ownership by a Chinese company in league with the military regime (see: Burma Lawyers report on Letpadaung released)

As of now, the NLD has issued no statement on the Hpakant tsunami (a term adapted from our description of the Samarco disaster).

This may partly be because the region's jade trade is one being bloodily contested beteen the Burmese regime and the Kachin Independence Army (see: Burma: What does "security clearance" mean in practice?).

And, as revealed by Gobal Witness in a recent report, the miltary is among those who continue to profit from that trade - to the tune of £20 billion a year (see: Myanmar's miltary elite profit from jade).

Is Ms Suu Kyi afraid to stand up against the regime in this respect?

If not, and her government now pledges itself to formulating a clear, concise, equitable, safe and unequivocal pro-community extractives policy, she should proclaim that loud and clear. 

It's a message that relatives and dependants of those who've been buried alive in Hpakant now deserve to hear.

[Comment by Nostromo Research]

Hopes fade for 100 miners missing after landslide near Myanmar jade mine

Aung Hla Tun and Timothy McLaughlin


23 November 2015

YANGON – Hopes faded on Monday that any of an estimated 100 people missing would be found alive after a landslide in northern Myanmar buried an encampment near a jade mine, and officials said it was still unclear how many people were living in the area.

Rescue workers had recovered 113 bodies when the search was suspended on Monday evening, Khin Kyaw, a local police officer, told Reuters. Two of the bodies recovered were women, he said.

Heavy equipment has been brought in to assist the digging in Hpakant, the site of the landslide in a mountainous area in the northern Kachin State that produces some of the world’s highest-quality jade.

“We just don’t know how many people exactly were buried since we don’t have any data on people living there,” Tin Swe Myint, head of the Hpakant Township Administration Department, said on Sunday. “It was just a slum with these … workers living in makeshift tents.”

A man-made mountain of earth excavated from mines gave way in the early hours of Saturday, smashing into a makeshift settlement at the foot of the slag heap and burying mine workers as they slept.

The mines and soil dump sites are hazardous and deaths among the many migrant workers who pick through the slag piles for jade are common.
An official from the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, a division of the Ministry of Mines that oversees the mining and sales of jade and other gems, said that landslides at dump sites were “very common.”

Ko Sai, a miner who was at a nearby camp, said the landslide hit around 3 a.m., when many miners were sleeping. “We just heard a loud noise sounding like thunder and saw that the huge mountain collapsed and a huge wave of rubble was moving and sprawling on a wide area,” Ko Sai said.
“It was just like a nightmare,” he said.

Several companies had dumped mining debris at the 200-acre dump site, said Tin Swe Myint. The dump was near a mine controlled by the Triple One Jade Mining Company, he said.

Much of the jade that is mined in Hpakant is believed to be smuggled to neighbouring China, where the stone is highly valued.

Dystopian wasteland

The value of jade production in Myanmar is estimated to have been around $31 billion in 2014, according to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness, which published a report on the opaque sector earlier this year.

Just over a third of that value showed up in official Chinese trade data.

Jade mining companies controlled by Myanmar’s powerful military, tycoons linked to them, and drug barons have made Hpakant a “dystopian wasteland”, Global Witness said in a statement.

“There is no regulation, there is no engineering involved in this and there would need to be to keep these structures stable,” said Global Witness’ Asia Director Mike Davis, referring to the mining dumps.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a national election earlier this month, pledged in its manifesto to bring transparency to the mining industry and make it safe.

The NLD has made no official comment on the disaster.

Myanmar landslide: 'Many missing' at Kachin jade mine

Jonathan Fisher

BBC News, Yangon

23 November 2015
Many people are still missing after a massive landslide at a jade mine in Myanmar's northern Kachin state.

At least 104 bodies have now been recovered, with some estimates saying more than 100 people are still missing.

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

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

Many of those killed were people who made their living scavenging on or near the waste dumps, searching through the debris in the hope of finding fragments of jade to sell.

The Burmese jade industry is dominated by companies connected to the army.

Their job is to gouge out as much of the ground as quickly as they can, and process it before dumping the rocks they don't need.

With China an eager market, the companies make hundreds of millions of dollars every year - but there's still money to be made in the leftovers.

A good small-sized rock can be worth several thousand dollars, so small-scale independent miners earn their living by picking their way through the piles of waste.

But as we've seen, the dump sites can be unstable, and landslides not uncommon.

We tried to visit Hpakant earlier this year to see at first hand how the jade industry works.

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.

Rescuers, including the military, have been using backhoes to clear the soil and look for survivors.

Communications with this part of Kachin State are poor and details are hard to confirm. Foreigners are not allowed in the area.

Authorities said this site and others had previously been designated at risk of landslides and notices had been issued to small-scale miners to not reside there, said state-owned The Global New Light of Myanmar.

"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 official from the Hpakant Township General Administration Department was cited as saying.

In a report in October, advocacy group Global Witness said the value of jade produced in 2014 alone was $31bn (£20.4bn) - the equivalent of nearly half the country's GDP - yet hardly any of the money is reaching ordinary people or state coffers.

Local people in mining areas accuse the mining industry of a series of abuses, including poor on-site health and safety and frequent land confiscations.

Many jade mining areas have been turned into a moon-like areas of environmental destruction as huge diggers churn the earth in search of the translucent green stones.

Nearly 100 bodies pulled from landslide at Myanmar jade mine

Aung Hla Tun


22 November 2015

YANGON - Nearly 100 bodies have been pulled from a landslide near a jade mine in Myanmar's northern Kachin State and an estimated 100 people are still missing, a rescue official said on Sunday.

The landslide happened in the early hours of Saturday in Hpakant, an area that produces some of the world's highest-quality jade, but the mines and dump sites for debris are rife with hazards and landslides are not uncommon, though rarely this deadly.

Workers, many of them migrants from other parts of the country, toil long hours for little pay.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that many of the miners were sleeping in huts when the landslide occurred.

An official with the Hpakant Township Fire Brigade told Reuters by telephone that 99 bodies had been recovered by late Sunday afternoon and that this number was likely to rise. "We are sure the death toll will go up since many are still missing," he said.

The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that the accident occurred near a mining site controlled by Triple One Jade Mining at around 3 a.m. on Saturday.

It was unclear as to what triggered the landslide in the remote and mountainous region that is almost entirely off limits to foreigners.

A lawmaker also confirmed the figure. Zaw Htay, a senior official from the President's Office, said that rescue efforts were being carried out by local authorities. "Responsible officials from Kachin State government are taking care of rescue and relief works," he said.

Myanmar's jade industry is extremely opaque and much of the jade that is mined in Hpakant is believed to be smuggled to neighbouring China where the stone is highly valued.

According to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness, which published a comprehensive report on the sector earlier this year, the value of jade production in Myanmar is estimated to have been as much as US$31 billion in 2014.

Many of the jade mines are connected to government officials, members of armed ethnic groups and cronies with close ties to the former military government, the group found.

Safety measures at the mines and surrounding dumping sites are minimal.

"These crony-owned mining companies piled this giant mine dump near the village without any consideration for the safety of the village that has existed all along," the fire official said.

Myanmar jade mine landslide kills around 100

Death toll soars after disaster hits people scavenging through a mountain of waste rubble in search of Myanmar’s most valuable stone

Agence France-Presse in Yangon

22 November 2015

About 100 people have been killed in a landslide as they picked through mountains of waste rubble in a remote mining area of northern Myanmar searching for precious jade, state media has reported.

Those killed were thought to have been mainly itinerant miners, who make a living scavenging through mountains of waste rubble dumped by mechanical diggers used by mining firms at the centre of a secretive multibillion-dollar industry in the restive Kachin state.

Saturday’s massive landslide crushed dozens of shanty huts clustered on the barren landscape and which were home to an unconfirmed number of people.

The disaster happened at about 3.30am local time (9pm GMT) and lasted just a couple of minutes, according to Zaw Moe Htet, a local gems trader whose village overlooks the devastated area in the Hpakant mining area. “Even people living in villages further away could hear the cries of those who rushed to the scene,” he said.

Video footage of the area shot on Saturday shows men carrying several bodies slung in blankets watched by a crowd of local people in a dusty plain near the village of Sai Tung.

Nilar Myint, an official from the local administrative authorities in Hpakant, said rescue teams have so far found 97 people killed in the landslide.
Landslides are a common hazard in the area as people living off the industry’s waste pick their way across perilous mounds under cover of darkness, driven by the hope they might find a chunk of jade worth thousands of dollars.

Scores have been killed this year alone as local people say the mining companies, many of which are linked to the country’s junta-era military elite, increase their operations in Kachin.

Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world’s finest jadeite, a translucent green stone that is prized above almost all other materials in neighbouring China.

In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of jade produced in 2014 alone was $31bn (£20.4bn), the equivalent of nearly half the country’s GDP.

But that figure is about 10 times the official $3.4bn sales of the precious stone last year, in an industry that has long been shrouded in secrecy with much of the best jade thought to be smuggled directly to China.

Local people in Hpakant complain of a litany of abuses associated with the mining industry, including the frequency of accidents and land confiscations.

The area has been turned into a moonscape of environmental destruction as huge diggers gouge the earth looking for jade.

Itinerant miners are drawn from all parts of Myanmar by the promise of riches and become easy prey for drug addiction in Hpakant, where heroin and methamphetamine are cheaply available on the streets.

“Industrial-scale mining by big companies controlled by military families and companies, cronies and drug lords has made Hpakant a dystopian wasteland where locals are literally having the ground cut from under their feet,” said Mike Davis of Global Witness, calling for companies to be held accountable for accidents.

The group wants the jade industry, which has long been the subject of US sanctions, to be part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global scheme designed to increase transparency around natural resource management.

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