Jade mine permits halted
Mining permits for jade and gems will not be renewed when they expire and no new licences will be granted until updated laws are passed to govern the conflict-ridden industry.
THE government will not renew mining permits for jade and gems when they expire and will only consider issuing new permits once by-laws to the Myanmar Gemstones Law have been passed, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation said yesterday.
The ministry wants to change the rules governing gemstone production, said U Thet Khaing, deputy director of the Licence and Registry Department under state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise.
“There are a lot of reasons why we are suspending licence extensions, but the main one is to change the rules and regulations,” he said.
The move follows a series of disastrous landslides that have killed several hundred workers, as well as reports about the wholesale looting of the country’s natural mineral wealth for the benefit of a few.
Myanmar has come under significant pressure from activist groups, environmentalists and foreign governments to clean up the vastly lucrative industry, which remains under US sanctions.
The suspension will not only cover the jade mines in Hpakant but gemstone quarries across the country, according to a ministry announcement.
Ministry data shows 420 mining permits will expire this month in Kachin and Shan states and Mandalay and Sagaing regions, in mining areas such as Hpakant, Hkamti, Mogok and Mong Shu.
Companies can continue to dig until their licence expires and it will take until 2021 before all the permits for 19,000 blocks across the country have run their course, according to information provided by U Thet Khaing.
Gems and jewellery entrepreneurs yesterday criticized the decision, on the grounds that the suspension will hurt small time traders and put itinerant miners out of work.
U Kyaw Kyaw Oo, executive member of the Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association, told The Myanmar Times that the government should reconsider its announcement or risk damaging the entire industry.
“This is not the first time [a suspension has been put in place]. The previous government did a similar thing between 2012 and 2014,” he said.
“A lot of jade hunters flocked to the land around the mines [in Kachin State’s Hpakant] at that time and squatted there, which led the government to repeal its decision. The new government should learn from this incident.”
A damning report by advocacy group Global Witness last year said the negative impact of mines on local communities could not be overstated, citing fatally dangerous conditions, endemic drugs and prostitution.
“The elites cream off vast profits while local people suffer terrible abuses and see their natural inheritance ripped out from beneath their feet,” the report said, putting the value of the jade industry at US$31 billion in 2014-15 alone, while government figures for 2013-14 put the trade at barely $1 billion.
U Kyaw Kyaw Oo believes the government is suspending production to prevent illegal mining and the unlawful export of jade and gemstones to China. Much of Myanmar’s jade is smuggled to China directly from the mines, while local dealers in markets such as Mandalay say they no longer see any profits.
“The government should prevent illegal gems and jewellery production, but I don’t understand why it wants to stop all production,” he said.
U Yone Mu, chair of the association, said unemployment will rise because of the suspension, adding that the association is worried about the negative impact on the industry if production rates fall.
“Decorative gemstones from other countries will take the place of our own gems and jewellery in our markets. This will mostly be a challenge for small entrepreneurs. The government shouldn’t do it,” he said.
However, environmentalists welcomed the announcement and said they supported the suspension of new mining permits.
“Good!! It’s pretty good! It is important to protect the country’s environment,” said Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability spokesperson U Win Myo Thu by email. Civil society groups have asked the government for many years to stop companies mining for jade.
They typically single out Hpakant and Lone Kin jade mining areas because of fears over excessive degradation of the local environment and over-digging, excessive use of machinery, and the deaths of hundreds of jade scavengers in landslides caused by the collapse of tailings piles.
Freelance miners rest at a jade mine in Hpakant in 2015.