Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A cursed treasure – ‘Jade Land’ Hpakant

by Mungpi & Solomon

New Delhi (mizzima) - While the world’s highest quality green stone, jade, continues to be a money maker for the military rulers of Burma, the precious gem has literally turned into a poisoned chalice for local miners in Hpakant in the absence of proper procedural safeguards.

According to initial reports at least 30 people, including miners, were buried alive in early July when a landslide occurred near Hpakant in Kachin State of northern Burma.

Local residents said the landslide was caused by heavy rainfall, which flooded the Uru River that flows through the mines. But others said the Uru River was disturbed by loose soil blocking the flow of the river, subsequently causing the flood. (JEG's: heavy drilling underground? close to the river? - could it be dams or tunnelling?)

Locals further said the death toll could be as high as 70 or more, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) saying the casualty tally has yet to be verified.

OCHA said at least 700 to 800 people were affected by the landslide, mandating the establishment of five camps for those displaced.

As water continues to inundate areas in Hpakant Township, locals added that flooding is also affecting several nearby towns including Seng Tawng and Long Khin, taking with it loose soil dumped from the mines.

Hpakant, which produces some of the world’s highest quality jade, is among the least developed towns in Burma, with no proper electricity, sanitation or drainage system and no clear policy regarding the disposal of loose soil.

Located in the tropical rainforest in northern Burma, the areas surrounding Hpakant were once thickly populated with green plants and trees. But the jade producing town today has become largely barren with few trees and little greenery to be seen, according to locals.

Local residents maintain that the mines do not provide adequate security for miners, failing to have in place any protective measures against potentially fatal disasters, including landslides and floods.

While the landslide in early July came as a shock, locals said they were not shocked by the sight of so many dead bodies, most of whom had innocently come to the area in the hope of becoming rich.

Life for common miners in the largely underdeveloped town is rough and fortune can be fickle. But, nonetheless, people from all over the country continue to arrive in search of a financial windfall that could permanently, or at the least temporarily, change their lives.

Yet sadly, most people fall drastically short of their hoped for dreams.

While some at Hpakant are simply killed by natural disaster, others end up drug addicts or infected with disease, including AIDS.

The least that can commonly be expected from working in Hpakant is a bout of malaria, which is often treated by inhaling raw opium in the form of a smoke – resulting in many miners becoming addicted to the drug.

“A lot of people come here and die because of drug abuse instead of fulfilling their hopes,” a businessman living in Hpakant since 1992 told Mizzima.

He said prostitution and drug abuse are normal sights in the town and in areas where mines are located.

“A lot of people do not know the limits to this and continue to stay, searching and waiting for their opportunity, but instead end up dying,” he said.

The ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese junta, finalized in 1994, significantly altered the means to business in Hpakant.

Earlier, despite its many hardships, Hpakant was dominated by individual businessmen and fortune seekers, a few of whom actually did realize their dream in the jungles of northern Burma.

But following the truce, Hpakant saw a reordering of its business as the junta, who gained access to jade producing areas as part of the agreement, began opening up the area for corporate businesses to come in with their significant equipment and deep pockets.

The result was an influx of several new companies and players, mostly Chinese and doing the bidding of the junta. Additionally, the government began to introduce mining licenses, with people without a license suddenly finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Further, the price for a mining license is often quite high and it is almost impossible for a common miner to obtain, in accordance with the junta's preference to award contracts to large companies. As a result, many who previously relied on the mines for their livelihood found themselves with no means of income.

“Only the big fish survived,” a Myitkyina businessman told Mizzima.

While corporate mining has succeeded in greatly increasing the revenue of the ruling junta, it has also destroyed the environment.

Awng Wa, chairman of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) based in Kachin State, told Mizzima that the environment, particularly the forests, in Hpakant have changed – with most big trees already cut down and farms completely destroyed by big mining machines.

“The companies are using machines to dig into the ground in search of the green stone, doing it fast and leaving the lands unusable,” explained Awng Wa.

“It is almost impossible to find a tree in the area as the machines have uprooted villages, farms and mountain hills,” he added.

He warned that if things continue at this rate and no preventive measures are taken, there could be more floods, landslides and other natural disasters resulting in the unnecessary loss of additional life.

“The ruling junta is responsible. They are reckless, allowing companies to use machines and permitting them to destroy places without proper measures to protect the environment or even the lives of villagers,” Awng Wa said.

He added that while the junta reaps the benefits along with their close friends, the local people, who have been mostly expelled from jade mining in accordance with the new system, are left with piles of loose soil that are often washed away by rising river water.

Locals believe the number of deaths caused by the recent landslide may never be determined, as a lot of people live on such piles of loose soil and there is no proper registration of the people.

“This is not the first time, flooding occurs here every now and then. But this is one of the worst,” one local residing near the site of the disaster told Mizzima.

He said companies which have heavily invested in the search for jade and dig into the ground are dumping loose soil on the course of the Uru River, blocking the flow of water and enhancing the risk of heavy flooding.

Another reason for the threat of devastating landslides and floods, according to locals, is companies have altered the flow of the Uru River as they have discovered that there is a potential jade mine beneath the river.

“Since the river’s course is altered, it often causes floods when the water level grows higher, resulting in more loose soil being swept away and landslides,” said Awng Wa.

“Still today, the water is inundating the Maw Wan, Hpakant Gyi and Seng Tawng areas,” a local said.

Awng Wa said before the ceasefire the risk of environmental degradation in Hpakant was much less, as local miners used their bare hands to dig into the ground in search of jade and other precious minerals.

Ever Winner, Myanmar Dagon and Share Family are the most powerful companies operating in the area, each with strong ties to the ruling junta. The companies are headed by Chinese and own several mines each, with the government having a 40 percent share while the companies hold 60 percent.

“Chinese owned companies are the strongest and most powerful here,” a local resident, who worked for one of the companies, told Mizzima.

Besides prostitution, as a quick means to earn money, Hpakant is also a safe haven for drug dealers. However, both prostitution and drug dealing, or even running a casino, do not go unnoticed by the local authorities, who demand bribes to keep silent.

A local resident said before the 1994 ceasefire, people coming to Hpakant, whatever job they might take, typically did not leave empty-handed.

“But now, people are thrown out of the mining business and many have become prostitutes or drug dealers,” he explained.

However, with financial life getting harder to manage in other parts of the country, Hpakant is still a popular destination for many people. And it often is difficult to determine the number of people working in the mines at any one time, as there are is no process for worker registration.

“It might never be possible to know the true number of casualties from the landslide in July because there is no registration of the number of people, and death in this part of the world is too common,” a local lamented.

He said the government has done little to help the people in solving problems, leaving individuals to fend for themselves.

UNOCHA in Rangoon has appealed for humanitarian assistance for victims of the landslide and called on humanitarian groups to provide food, water and shelter.

But the government of Burma, so far, has made no public announcement of the disaster, which is believed to have killed at least 70 and affected over 700 more.

A local remarked, “There are so many incidents of mine workers dying due to disasters, but no one knows how many people die, who they are or how they died. And the government has never rendered any help.”

He said, in Hpakant, people only know the government for their collection of money, never even contemplating that the government should, and could, help in alleviating their daily struggles.

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