At least 162 people died 2 July after heavy rains caused a landslide at a jade mine in Kachin state, Myanmar, close to the Chinese border. About 30 meters of waste soil collapsed into a lake of mine wastewater, creating a large wave which hit those working at the perimeter of the lake.
It is estimated that as many as 300 people were in the area at the time, where prospectors were scavenging for gemstones on the in Hpakant township. Furrowing from earlier excavations had already loosened the earth.
Responding fire services reported recovering bodies floating on the lake but not the “dozens” who were smothered by a wave of mud. First responders expressed concern that additional landslides could happen given the condition of the open-cast mine, the mountainous terrain and a continuing heavy monsoon.
Myanmar's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Conservation had ordered mines in the region to close until September due to the annual monsoon. But the market in China for the gemstones is high, and the price paid is favourable to poor ethnic minority communities who rely on the industry.
Official sales of jade in Myanmar were worth about $750 Million USD in 2016. Watchdog Global Witness alleges that the industry, which is highly secretive, is linked to former junta figures, the military elite, and their cronies. They claim the trade is worth billions per annum. There is no evidence of any environmental protection measures in place but the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to reform the industry.
“Although there are government orders on the systematic piling of the waste soil and other regulations, they are not implemented properly,” said Ko Naung Latt, the director of Green Land, an environmental group, as reported in local media outlet The Irrawaddy.
“Poverty also forces the prospectors and scavengers who look through the waste soil to work at any time so they are normally the victims in an accident,” he added. “The government needs to issue punishments and law enforcement officers should inspect the area.”
It is believed that the revenues from extraction of jade, timber, gold, and amber help to finance both sides of a long civil war between ethnic Kachin insurgents and the country's military.