Myanmar Town Of Hpakant Threatened By Jade Mining; President Obama Extends Ban On Imports Of Jade And Ruby From Myanmar

on August 07 2013 4:44 PM
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Jade merchants inspect a piece of jade being sold by a private company at the Mid-Year Emporium in Yangon, the commercial center of Myanmar. REUTERS/Aung Hla Tun

Hpakant, a town known as Myanmar’s jade capital, could disappear within 30 years due to excessive, unsustainable jade mining. Myanmar’s powerful military has long been involved in the jade industry, and the Obama administration is planning to extend the ban on jade imports from Myanmar that's been in place since 2003.

Jade has been mined manually in the area, located in northern Kachin state, for centuries. Industrial scale mining only began more recently, and the use of dynamite and heavy machinery to extract the stone only became widespread when the military government signed a ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Army in 1994, reported the Asia News Network.  

The Kachin state, which borders China and India, is still prone to violence between ethnic rebels and government forces, despite Myanmar’s democratic reforms, according to the Miami Herald.

"Here, a mountain will disappear within two months,” said Hla Sai, an MP from the National League for Democracy who has been living in Hpakant for 40 years and is indignant about the unsustainable mining practices. “Over 50 or 60 mountains have already disappeared. There are only around 10 mountains left for jade mining. The whole Kachin State's [economy] depends on jade. The whole state will lose its balance when the jades vanish.”

Sai blamed military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and local entrepreneurs for lacking transparency in jade mining, and called for the government not to neglect the local people in Hpakant, according to the Asia News Network.

"The companies have been dumping soil on the riverbanks. Rivers and streams have become extinct. We're suffering from natural disasters," said Gandhi, a social activist from Hpakant.

At the current rate, jade will become rarer, and people will move away. Hpakant will become a ghost town, said Vayama, the chairman of Hpakant Township Sangha Association.

“The gems will become rarer and the people will move away. I don't like the use of big machineries. Natural resources should be taken out bit by bit. I want the government to regulate this," Vayama added.

In addition, many locals have noticed climatic changes as a result of the consistent degradation of the surrounding natural environment by mining companies. Most of the damage has occurred since 2005 when more than 500 companies started using heavy machinery to extract greater quantities of jade.

"There aren't any forests left. The weather changed significantly after 1997. Uncountable numbers of villages and mountains have disappeared before our eyes. There are no limits in the use of explosives in removing the mountains," said Kavisara, secretary of Hpakant Township Sangha Association, according to the Asia News Network.

Northern Kachin state also produces rubies, and imports of both stones from Myanmar are expected to be banned, even after the sanctions imposed in 2003 expired in July. Congressional aides said President Obama is planning to issue an executive order extending the ban, due to the powerful military’s involvement in the trade, according to the Miami Herald

The U.S. and the European Union originally imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar due to lack of democracy and human rights improvements, but both have since eased the limitations after the Southeast Asian nation adopted a reform government. 

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