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The Price of Jade

Myanmar's secretive jade mines lie in the Kachin town of Hpakant in the north of the country. Hpakant, also known as "the land of jade", produces the world's highest quality of the stone, which the Chinese have prized for millennia for its beauty and symbolism. As an old Chinese saying goes "Gold is valuable but jade is priceless". Every day in Hpakant, hundreds of thousands of young men who have migrated from different regions of Myanmar with a dream to find a short-cut to wealth, swarm across mountains of mining waste dumped by the government licensed mining companies. Few are lucky in their quest; many end up destitute, desperate and often addicted to heroin. A 1994 ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army, one of the many ethnic militia that have fought the central government since independence, and the Burmese military brought most of the jade-producing territory back under government control. Since then, large-scale extraction dominated the industry, with hundreds of backhoes, earthmovers and trucks working around the clock, turning traditional freelance prospectors into illegal scavengers. For them, the work is perilous and unforgiving. When the monsoon sweeps across the region, the vast banks and slag heaps often succumb to landslides, killing hundred. A massive landslide in November 2015 at an official mining waste-dumpe site reportedly killed 114 miners.

Drug use is rampant among miners with 'shooting galleries'' operating openly in Hpakant and workers often exchanging lumps of jade for hits of heroine. Fierce access restrictions are currently in place to reduce public scrutiny of the industry's biggest players, its rampant corruption and its horrific social cost. Armed conflict in the area also flared up again in mid 2012 leading to ambushes along the jade trading road, which is said to be lined with land mines - the remnants of decades of civil war. The fighting came close to the area around Hpakant and the jade mines.

Lumps of jade can mean the difference between impecunity and untold fortune for small-time prospectors; a handful of pure jade pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the rare lucky finds by an individual prospector pale in comparison to the staggering wealth generated by this billion-dollar industry for Myanmar's military, a cabal of tycoons and firms linked to China where most of the jade ends up illegally. A recent report by the London-based NGO Global Witness put the size of Myanmar's jade industry at $31 billion in 2014, equating to nearly half of national GDP and over 46 times the nation's spending on healthcare. "Myanmar's jade business may be the biggest natural resource heist in modern history" says Global Witness analyst Juman Kubba.

Part of this on-going documentary project on jade was done with the support from Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).
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