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The Burmese government has vowed greater oversight of mining practices following a slew of on-site disasters in the country’s north.
Last month, at least 114 were killed when a pile of soft earth collapsed at the homes of small-scale jade miners at Hpakant in south-central Kachin State. Several other deadly incidents have been reported in the mining hub in the weeks since.
The director general of Burma’s Department of Mines, Win Htein, recognised that the ministry would need to enforce stricter regulation on unregistered miners, who converge on Hpakant from all corners of the country in the hope of striking it rich. Men, women and children sift through upturned rubble at the mine sites in the hope of finding a small jade stone passed over by industrial mining operations.
Hpakant is largely cut off from the rest of Burma by a long running war being fought in the surrounding jungles.
Win Htein conceded that there would need to be a “reorganis[ing] of government departments, civil organisations and local authorities” in order to crack down on illicit and dangerous practices in the black site.
However Win Htein insisted that the miners themselves must shoulder some of the blame for their own risky work practices.
“There were people there [in Hpakant] that were searching the jade mines illegally, and in some instances, running to the trucks before they had even unloaded the soil.
“When there is an explosion warning, people don’t stop. They keep searching for stones. So, both the companies and the people must take responsibility,” he said.
The Burmese government has also been forced to address accusations of the use of illegally imported and unchecked machinery in Hpakant.
Tin Ye Win, director general of the Ministry of Commerce, has now pledged to have all vehicles currently being used in the Hpakant jade mining area checked for appropriate documentation. So far, a response team from the commerce ministry has seized more than 700 vehicles, which are now due to be auctioned off. Further imports have been suspended for an unspecified amount of time.
Accusations of the use of illegally imported heavy mining machinery in the extraction industry, most recently by London-based watchdog Global Witness, could not be confirmed by the Department of Mines. However Win Htein stated that an investigation into the matter had been launched.
He added that the ministry plans to use a fund of some US $2 million to implement corporate social responsibility (CSR) structures to mining in Hpakant. The funds are allocated from the industry’s profits.
The introduction of CSR is a part of Burma’s application to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – of which the country is now a candidate. Global Witness’ report, released in October, may damage Burma’s bid for full EITI membership. Damning allegations made by the NGO point to the involvement of military-linked cronies in a large scale plundering of Burma’s rich jade resource, with almost none of the proceeds making its way down to the pockets of ordinary citizens.
The NGO estimates the Burmese illicit jade trade to be worth some US $31 billion alone, almost three times the official figure of $12.3 billion.