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.

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