‘Unearth’: The Stories Behind Burma’s Extractive Industries

By Feliz Solomon 24 November 2015

RANGOON — Early reports of a deadly landslide near a jade mine in Kachin State surfaced on Saturday afternoon, stirring confused chatter among a small crowd at a Rangoon gallery. It wasn’t until the following morning that the magnitude of the disaster was clear; a pile of earthen waste had swept the hillside and buried an entire settlement, leaving more than 100 dead and as many others missing.

The images on view at Unearth, a new photo exhibition at Myanmar Deitta, in a sense foretold the tragedy. One of the show’s six featured photographers, Minzayar, is one of the only journalists with access to Burma’s shady and secretive jade trade, a multi-billion dollar industry associated with corruption, conflict and social ills among the ethnic Kachin minority in the country’s far north.

Minzayar’s photos provide some context for what transpired on Saturday, as well as a perceptive insider’s view on the lives touched by the trade. One image shows a hillside—likely similar to the one that recently gave way—peppered with lanterns as rogue miners sift through rubble in the darkness, in search of precious debris. In another, a Chinese trader sits surrounded by enormous chunks of the green gem in a hotel room of an establishment that serves as a safe haven for dealers.

A recent investigation put the value of Burma’s jade industry as high as US$31 billion in 2014 alone—nearly half the country’s GDP. The research, conducted over the course of a year by the NGO Global Witness, alleged that the sector was controlled by “networks of military elites, drug lords and crony companies associated with the darkest days of junta rule.”

On Monday morning, Minzayar was traveling back to Hpakant, the heart of Burma’s jade reserves and the site of the devastating landslide. It will be his sixth visit to the area since he began documenting the trade in 2013, a project that has taken him into mines, informal settlements, drug dens and louche commercial towns straddling the China border.

Each time he returns to Hpakant, he told The Irrawaddy, the landscape is transformed. Wholly new formations take shape, as “mountains become lakes.” As the natural hillsides are picked apart, new mounds made of waste pile up in their place. Locals and domestic migrants, who have never been the main beneficiaries of the trade, adapt to their shifting surrounds by building temporary settlements between and around the lucrative deposits. Minzayar said that a landslide like the one that occurred on Saturday could easily happen again, as it has in the past on a smaller scale.

“It’s full of these kinds of waste piles,” he said. “I have always seen cracks along the mountains, and people walk there. It’s very normal for them.”

Much Remains Buried

Jade is just one of the many resources examined by the works in Unearth. Other featured photographers traveled to various reaches of the country to document small-scale oil extraction, coal and copper mines, and pipelines that cut across the country’s heartland. Despite their breadth, the works on display barely scratch the surface of Burma’s extractive projects, which also include timber, hydropower and rare earth metals.

Lauren DeCicca, an American photographer, set out for central Burma to document the fallout of the Letpadaung copper mining project, a China-backed mega-development that has prompted outrage among affected communities and religious leaders. Opposition peaked in November 2012, when a months-long sit-in protest was dismantled by police firing white phosphorus into an encampment in the early hours of the morning. In one image, a woman’s blurred face shows scars from the violent crackdown. Others illustrate the scale of the site and the impact it has had on land rights. Many viewers surely remember that just last year a villager was shot dead by police over a land dispute near the site.

Supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute, Unearth was envisioned as a way to draw out information about underreported extractive projects and their impacts. The six stories gleaned from the project will be used to “inform officials, industry professionals and the wider public,” according to a spokesperson for Myanmar Deitta, a non-profit documentary organization which is supporting the project and hosting the exhibition.

The social, economic and environmental impacts of Burma’s notoriously opaque extractive industries are just beginning to be examined. For years, while Burma was isolated from much of the global economy, the ruling junta exploited the country’s rich resource reserves with virtually no oversight, shallow development commitments and an abysmal human rights record.

Last year, Burma was accepted as a candidate country for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international protocol geared toward establishing strong fiscal reporting practices and empowering civil society to influence resource policy. An initial report is set to be submitted to international auditors in January 2016, and Burma is expected to become a fully compliant EITI member state by January 2017.

Unearth features photography by Minzayar (Burma), Yu Yu Myint Than (Burma), Lauren DeCicca (USA), Andre Malerba (USA), Suthep Kritsanavarin (Thailand) and Matt Grace (UK). Works will be on view from Nov. 24 to Dec. 19 at Myanmar Deitta, located on the third floor of No. 49, 44th street, in downtown Rangoon. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm.