MANDALAY — As talk heats up over jade mining in Kachin State’s troubled Hpakant region amid reports of frenzied extraction of the precious gems there in recent months, Burma’s deputy minister of mines vowed Monday to prosecute illegal jade miners large and small.
The ministry’s plan was discussed during a session of Parliament’s Upper House, where lawmakers called on the Union government to take action to restore rule of law in the region and prevent further landslides and environmental degradation.
“The ministry is going to take legal action against illegal miners and prospectors who are looking for residual jade in the pilings of mining waste,” said Than Tun Aung, deputy minister of mines, in response to a motion submitted by Kachin lawmaker Khet Tein Nan urging government solutions to some of the problems that have beset the jade trade in Hpakant Township.
The deputy minister said the ministry was mulling possible amendments to Burma’s Gems Mining Law to ensure better environmental protections and prevention of illegal mining, a tightening of permitting and enforcement on limits to the use of heavy machinery. The measures would be aimed at making gems mining a more sustainable sector, he added.
Regarding complaints that the fundamental ill afflicting Hpakant is an absence of the rule of law, Than Tun Aung said on this matter the ministry would cooperate with local authorities, the Kachin State government, the military and even ethnic armed groups operating in the region.
The Upper House on Monday approved Khet Tein Nan’s motion, and the chamber’s missive to the government was followed by a notice to President Thein Sein, sent from parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann on the same day.
In the notice, the speaker called on the Union government to submit an explanation, as soon as possible, for the frequent landslides in Hpakant and a reported increase in large-scale mining in the region that has brought an influx of potentially hazardous heavy machinery.
Deadly landslides of mine waste pilings have occurred frequently this year in Hpakant. The deadliest, last month, killed at least 114 people, so-called “hand pickers” who scavenge through the waste of excavation sites in hopes of finding gems missed by large companies. Dozens of others have died in smaller incidents.
The pilings of mining waste are also negatively affecting the region’s environment and crops, and the detritus blocks some waterways, causing severe floods in recent years.
Even amid growing calls for a review of business as usual in Hpakant, the director of the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which is under the Ministry of Mines, said Saturday that now is the “right time” to be extracting jade from the region.
“Since the process of mining is to remove the soil waste and unearth the jade beneath, the jobs need to be done before the rainy season, and now is the right time for the mining of jade,” said Aung Nyunt Thein, as quoted in the state-run Myanma Alin daily. Burma’s rainy season typically begins in April or June.
The director also explained that mining companies were being forced to dig deeper than ever before to strike jade, having depleted shallower deposits.
According to Aung Nyunt Thein, about 627 mining companies, all owned by Burmese nationals, were operating in the Hpakant and Lone Kin jade mining regions.
A Reuters report last week asserted that much of the large-scale mining taking place in Hpakant is being done by Chinese companies that have accelerated their extraction in recent months, fearing the incoming government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) will attempt to rein in the industry’s excesses. Additionally, research from the environmental watchdog Global Witness in October alleged that the Burma Army, at least one sitting cabinet minister, ethnic armed groups and several of Burma’s “cronies” all have ties to the jade trade.
Regardless of who is behind the mining, locals say the number of large machines and pace of jade extraction in the region is unprecedented.
“I’ve never seen such mining processes in my life. It is true that all mines could not work in the rainy season, but this year, they are mining as if they were starving monsters, devouring the earth in one gulp,” said La Htaung, a local miner in the Hpakant region.
“Prosecuting the illegal miners, especially the hand-pickers, is not the solution to solve the problems we are facing now. What we want is to review the mining companies, as soon as possible,” he added.