The Kachin State is located in the northernmost region of the country Myanmar -covered with natural resources and thousands of mountains. Every morning begins with waking up to the chirping of birds and to sounds of a variety of creatures. Kachin land is for me the most beautiful place in the world.
The land is not only known for its natural beauty and diversity of plants and animals but it is more known of its minerals and precious stones or gems like jade, amber, copper, platinum and gold. But among them jade is the most popular stone or gem to people. This story begins in HpaKant. Jade has been Myanmar’s key export for many years. The jade which is extracted from the area has the best quality in the world. But with its popularity with jade comes its notoriety of tragedies like deaths from landslides, drug addiction, unfair labor practices and deceits.
Let’s take a look! Living and working in the mining camps is a lot of struggle and back-breaking work. Many of us freelance mi (small-scale independent) miners locally called “yemase,” which means scavengers who search for possible jade fragments left-overs by large mining companies in the open mines. Most of these “yemases’ live from hand-to-mouth existence.
People discriminate and despise the “yemases” because they are considered to be all drug-users, thieves and bad elements. It has now been a month since I arrived with my friends to do freelance jade mining. We look for precious stones coming out of the steep slopes of the open pits created and dumped by the mining company trucks. Each one armed with a ‘sei tiu” or small hammer mounted on a stick taps the rocks listening for a certain sound that indicates precious jade is inside the stone.
We cannot go into the pits or the piles of stones any time of the day. But most of the company areas are guarded and restricted. The sound of a whistle signals to everyone that the gates are open and everyone rush to the area where left-over or scrap stones are dumped by the mining companies. The yemases work hard hoping by luck of finding the stone that will make him rich but constantly facing danger and doing back-breaking work.
As I tap on every rock, trying to listen to the sound of a jade inside a stone, I also have to look out for falling stones and even for fellow miners. We work in areas prone to landslides. Deadly accidents are regular occurrence. These mining areas are high-risk for injuries and fatale damages especially night mining.
Some miners including me prefer working at night to avoid huge crowds and quarreling among other yemases once a jade is found. There is no real agreement between the yemases and the companies. If a yemase finds a valuable jade, the company would buy it out for less the amount if one sells it outside of the companies. But if we only get small stones - we can carry them in our bags without being discovered. However bigger stones would catch the eyes of companies and force us to sell at lower prices even if value of stone is very high. If we don’t give in, they would take away our stone and we get nothing.
There is no legal protection for small-scale miners or yemases. So that if we have problems with the mining companies, we can be sued neglecting our rights. If we get injured as a result of failures by the companies, we do not get compensation. Yemases have no life insurances. Many miners have died in a number of landslides. The death toll is unaccounted. And even with all these risks - people continue to come and strike their luck of finding jade.
Why do people keep coming to HpaKant especially young people?
Many workers from different parts of Myanmar arrive in Hpakant to find employment and income. Many of them are drifters. The longest - running internal armed conflict in the world (between Kachin Independent Army and the Burmese Army) is also making so many young people unemployed. And for those who could not continue studying, the easiest place to find employment or income is Hpakant. Prohibited drugs are also sold and bought easily. Making drugs cheap and many young people are addicted. It is easy to lose one’s dignity and self-respect in Hpakant. The place used to be the land of prohibited drugs. Now as a result of continuous awareness promotion against drug use in the communities, it is now not as bad as before.
Many young people believe that Hpakant can change their lives. Just finding one high-quality jade stone can change their lives and lift them out of their poverty and struggles. But being a yemase is not easy. And yet the number of yemases among young people is increasing.
Jade mining have many negative impacts to the environment specially on the land. The land around Hpakant has been altered in the many years it has been mined. Mountains become deep pools and pits. And flats lands have become mountains of scrapped rubbles and stones. The flow of water has already been altered. Water tables also are drying up. Forest lands were converted into mining areas - pushing out and killing the local population of a variety of animals and plants. Arrival of miners from every part of the country has also led to increased pollution and waste generation - year after year. But only the rich get richer and the poor increase in number.
I believe it is about time to look after and care for our environment and every creature. Time to take care of our true treasure - our Kachin land. Existing environmental laws should be implemented to protect our ecosystems. And laws should also be crafted to protect the small miners, the yemases. To recover the land and forest lost, companies should be required and forced to plant trees.
Should jade mining be stopped? That is the biggest question. If jade mining is stopped, where will the “yemases” go?
Yemase literally means “do not wash the jade” in Burmese the national language of the country. The yemases sell raw jade or unwashed jade to buyers. The buyers determine the price and so they are at the mercy of the buyers. Don’t wash your jade unless you want to see how red it is with the blood of yemases who lost their lives trying to find that stone that would change their lives. Don’t wash your jade unless you want to see how red it is with the blood of an entire ecosystem lost to the conversion of entire forestlands to make way for jade mining.
Peter Sut Ring is a local Kachin (Jinghpaw) youth and a 4th year university student taking up Mechanical Engineering. He is also an active member of the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM), a university student movement. The movement is inspired by the Student Catholic Action of the Philippines. In the Diocese of Myitkyina it hopes to provide activities and formation programs for Catholic university students. Like many of the young people in the diocese, Peter went to Hpakant with some friends to spend his summer break to be a “yemase” and earn some income while on school holidays. He wrote this piece while mining jade in Hpakant.