The title says it all. I have written this article because you have a right to know the story behind jade rather than the story about jade itself. The story I will tell you does stand in stark contrast to what you usually hear and read about and related to jade. My story is about what hardly anyone is telling you because it’s easier, more pleasant and maybe also safer to write about jade in glowing terms than to write about the invisible layer of jade mine workers’ blood and misery, corruption and illegal gains worth billions of USD, with which raw jade and products made of the ‘Stones Of Heaven’ are coated with. But this is exactly what this article is about.
Let’s take a look at the poverty and misery behind the stage on which emerald green jade surrounded by glitzy diamonds or in form of wonderfully carved larger or smaller pieces of artwork is taking centre and sold or auctioned off for tens and hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions of USD. The gap between riches beyond imagination in front of this stage and the unimaginable poverty and misery behind the stage could not be any wider.
Burma the beautiful country I am privileged to call home since more than 25 years is the source of the worlds’ most precious and highly sought after jade. The value of the in Burma in 2014 alone produced and exported amount of jade is estimated to have been somewhere between USD 30 and 38 billion. Yes, this is not a writing error it is billions, not millions.
What is jade, who is buying these huge amounts of jade and why?
In the following I will give you a very brief description of jade. Jade comes in two varieties namely jadeite and nephrite. Since they are composed of different minerals and chemicals we can actually speak of two different gems. The first, jadeite, is less common, much harder (from 6.5 to usually 8 and sometimes even 9 on the Mohs scale that ranges from 1 to 10) and made of aluminium, sodium silicate and chromium, the latter being the agent for green colour.
Jadeite exists in 6 natural colours. The most important of these colours is green that ranges from emerald green and apple green to spinach green and black green. The most expensive and sought after green is imperial green (the correct name is emerald green), for it was the colour of choice of Chinese empresses and emperors. The other colours in which jadeite appears are red, lavender, yellow, white, and near black, each one in several variations from light to dark. Characteristic for jadeite is among others, the intense and even colours, honey-like transparency, translucency, watery lustre and the even texture. All of this accounts for the fact that jadeite is much more precious thus more sought after, subsequently, more expensive than nephrite and used for most of the higher priced jade jewellery.
Nephrite is with only 6 to 6.5 on the Mohs scale much softer than jadeite and in all other characteristics of lesser quality than jadeite. But make no mistake it is nonetheless very valuable; only in direct comparison with jadeite it takes second place.
The answers to the questions, “who is buying these huge amounts of jade and why” I will give you right now. The one buying these huge amounts of jade is China the world’s largest jade market. And here is why. Since millennia jade (in Chinese language ‘yu’) is integral part of the Chinese culture and plays an immensely important role in the lives of Chinese irrespective of age, gender, profession, rank, class, financial and social status, etc. The reason for this is that for the Chinese jade, which has Confucius called the ‘Stone of Heaven’, is much more than ‘just’ a financial investment, piece of beautiful jewellery and/or a wonderfully carved decorative element. What makes jade for the Chinese so extraordinary desirable is its immaterial value. For them jade is a symbol for everything good in life such as good luck, wealth, health, power, nobility, success, perfection, purity and, believe it or not, immortality. Superstitiousness is deeply rooted in the Chinese people’s nature. For this reason, jade is for Chinese the most precious of all gems and possessing as much as possible of it in the highest quality possible is everyone’s aim. This combined with the increasing income of the large and rapidly expanding Chinese middle class creates an ever-growing demand and makes China not only Burma’s prime customer for unfinished jade but the world’s largest jade market that seems to be insatiable. Every year billions of USD worth of jade is exported from Burma to China. How much it really is all but no one knows because it is an open secret that much (most?) of the jade and the best of it is smuggled and sold to China by a most powerful, mafia-like organisation led and controlled with an iron fist by drug lords, highest ranking members of the Burmese army and the Burmese government and their cronies, what, do not fool yourself, is also true for the new Burmese government that has officially taken over the reins from the old military-backed ‘civil’ government in April 2016 after a landslide victory of the October 2015 elections by the NLD (National League Of Democracy) under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Just to give you one example that stands for many similar cases and will give you an idea what numbers we are actually talking here with respect to jade business. According to the London-based watchdog organisation Global Witness (an international organisation dedicated to investigating and exposing corruption and improving transparency in natural resources industries), retired Senior General Than Shwe and his family made more than USD 220 million in jade sales in 2013 and 2014.
As mentioned earlier, Burma is the source of almost all (it is said minimum 75 per cent) of the worlds’ supply of most precious and highly sought after jadeite. Where exactly is this jade mined?
In Burma jade is mined in the jade-rich Mountains of the Kachin State in the northernmost part of the country. The centre of jade mining is Hpakant. It is located 220 miles/350 kilometres north of Mandalay, in ‘jade land’ the biggest jade mining area in the world comprising of larger jade mines such as Maden Yang, Maw Mau Bum and Hpakant, Tawmao, Hweka and Mamon as well as smaller jade mines such as Ginsi Haw, Tang Gau and Ginsi Seng Ra.
The digging for jade does of course also have irreversible and catastrophic environmental consequences. The formerly lushest millennia-old rainforest with an unrivalled multitude of diversity in flora and fauna that has covered this region till some 30 years ago has fallen victim to the jade mining frenzy and what is left is a landscape that strongly resembles the surface of the moon and makes the living for the inhabitants/population of this area almost impossible. And the worst of it is that the mining area is growing almost by the day. Huge bulldozers are moving like the tentacles of a giant octopus into the surrounding areas and destroying the natural environment. The mining companies just take the additional land they need without paying anything in exchange to the rightful owners. This is called ‘land grabbing’ and something quite common in Burma; the rich and powerful just take, protected by other powerful people, what they want.
I have titled this article ‘Jade, The Stone Of Heaven Comes From Hell, and at the outset I have written about ‘the invisible layer of – among other – jade mine workers’ blood and misery raw jade and products made of the ‘Stones Of Heaven’ are coated with’. I have also written about ‘the poverty and misery behind the stage’ and now I want to explain to you why I am writing this. By the way, the first title I had given this article was ‘ For jade mine workers the way to hell is paved with the stone of heaven’ but that was too long for which reason I have chosen the title ‘Jade, The Stone Of Heaven Comes From Hell’.
Tens of thousands of small and medium scale jade miners individually or in groups, jade mine employees, jade pickers, etc. come to ‘jade land’ to work here although they do more or less know from hearsay that living and working here is no fun, to say the least. Yet, they come. Why do they come out of free will; are they out of their mind? No, they are neither out of their mind nor are they coming out of free will. The main reason for their coming to work in jade mines is poverty, the need to contribute to the family income so that they can survive and, of course, hope. Because not only have they heard that working in Kachin state’s jade mines is hard and very dangerous but also of people who have gone to e.g. Hpakant and have made a fortune, the story ‘From Beggar To Millionaire Over Night’, as it were. Yes, there is, for example, the true story of U Tin Ngwe a former taxi driver who is now very rich, one of the biggest jade traders in the region and owner of some smaller but very profitable jade mines. The formerly rather poor taxi driver’s successful career in the jade business began with a boulder he had bought from a trader for 3000 Burmese Kyat and sold it for 650.000 Kyat to another trader. U Tin Ngwe was very, very lucky and I wish him all the best, but how many ‘U Tin Ngwe’s’ are there?
There is also another reason for some to go to work in a jade mine, which is greed. That is more the gambler type who decides to go for a while and give it a shot. But that is like going in a 5 star restaurant to eat oysters without having a penny but hoping to find in one of the oysters the pearl to pay the bill with. But the number of this kind of people coming to Hpakant is negligible. Mostly it is extreme poverty that is the driving force.
Here is a brief description of a typical ‘jade mine worker carrier’. Once they – and that goes for all whatever the reason that brought them here might be – have arrive in the jade mine and started working it does not take long for them to realise that even in their wildest dreams they did not imagine how hard and dangerous the work is, how harsh the overall conditions and how low the (practically non-existing) safety standards are. Welcome to the reality of jade mining at the bottom of the chain of those who are in this business. Not long after the hard physical work combined with the very poor living conditions takes its toll. The body weakens and every bone and joint aches. Not much later it dawns on them that the dream of unimaginable riches was and will most probable remain just a dream and frustration is added to the physical pain. Now the point has come at which the decision on whether to stay or to leave needs to be made. Most decide to stay because they hope to become lucky. This decision does usually put them behind the point of return. Soon after things become unbearable and the first shot of cheap heroin is set. The effect is as one drug addict describes it that you feel very strong, that you do not feel the need for eating or sleeping, that you do not feel the pain anymore and that your mind is numbed.
Most of them find some jade here and there and earn, for example, 300.000 Burmese Kyat/month, what is also the amount that a standard mine worker can earn. At the time of this writing, USD 1 equals 1.118 Burmese Kyat. Let’s for simplicity’s sake calculate with an average of USD 1 = 1.000 Kyat, which makes it a monthly income of USD 300. From that they send home USD 150/month. After a while of drug use an addict needs a minimum of about 3 shots a day, which cost him on average a minimum of US 91.50/month. This leaves him an average of USD 58.50/month for other expenses. Some earn more but then they do not save it but spend it for better- if that is the term – drugs such as opium (1 pipe minimum USD 3.00) or methamphetamines (1 pill minimum USD 6.00). They may also send a bit more money home but the bottom line is that at the end of the month is nothing left, at best, or a minus. Then they have to do additional jobs. Female jade workers and drug addicts go into prostitution and male jade workers and drug addicts work additionally in one of the numerous drug shops and dens preparing drugs, pipes and syringes for other addicts in exchange for a discount on drugs for own use. There are also those who get a part of their monthly salary paid in drugs directly from their employers.
It will not take too long and the drug addicts will be HIV/AIDS positive because the syringes used for the heroin injections are unsterilized used by many addicts and the sex the prostitutes practicing is not exactly what can be called safe. According to insider estimates a minimum of 90 percent of those working in jade mines are drug addicts and a minimum of 75 percent of those working in jade mines are HIV positive.
For jade mine workers the chance of not leaving the jade mine alive is real and not exactly slim. There are many ways in which the jade workers can and actually do lose their lives month by month. Malaria, snake-bites, overdose of drugs, HIV, landslides, collapsing or flooding of jade pits and tunnels, extrajudicial killings by state or company security forces or simply exhaustion, you name it. Over time the death rate goes into the thousands. And as if this would not be enough many of them who leave the jade mines alive are sick, HIV infected drug addicts and will sooner or later die what increases the rate of those who lost their life due to their working or having worked in a jade mine significantly. No one knows the real figures but they will be much higher than those that are known.
The old Burmese Government has promised again and again (as the new one does now) to crack down on mining in Phakant for various reasons that include the ones for insufficient safety standards and poor working conditions. In the news papers headlines it sounds like this: “Parliament Pledges Safety Review after Hpakant Landslide Disaster”, “Official Vows Crackdown on… ” etc. This sounds all very good. However, the results of their ‘crackdowns on mines’ do In the news papers headlines sound like this: “Death Toll Rises to 104 at Jade Mine Collapse in Hpakant”, “Latest Landslide in Hpakant Leaves About a Dozen Dead, Locals Say”, ” More Than 70 Missing After Landslide in Myanmar’s Jade Mining Region”, ” At Least 100 Dead In Landslide at Myanmar Jade Mine”, etc. This does not sound as if the parliaments ‘vows and pledges’ are worth much because the results of the parliament officials ‘crackdowns’ do not seem to have achieved much in the way of improvements of safety and working conditions. In other words, so far nothing has happened that has or could have resulted in improvements of the terrible situation in Hpakant and other jade mines in the valley. On the contrary, the number of landslides, mine collapses and resulting number of missing people and the death toll is rapidly increasing. As for the future I do against the background of the a.m. have serious doubts that something significant will happen because asking the Burmese government (more precisely phrased, those of it who are the only ones who have the power to bring about a change for the better) are the very ones responsible for the present situation in the jade mines. To me it seems that asking them to put things that are wrong right is like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. After all, jade is the Burmese army’s, (its leaders, their cronies and other participants in the jade business) main source of income. Can we realistically expect that they give it away without ado or that it can be taken away from them? We will have to wait and see what the future is holding in store in this respect.
This is a real chance for the new government to show what it is capable of achieving; the litmus test, so to say. The jade problem (incl. related problems) is a very complex issue because the solving of the jade problem requires achieving national reconciliation and a peace accord with, among other, the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and it also requires solving at the same time the drug problem because these three problems are not separate problems but integral parts or more correctly phased the roots of the overall problem and without tackling the problem by its roots it will never be solved. It’s a tall order.
Why is with the exception of a few jade mine workers who have survived the hell of jade mines, investigative foreign journalists, some newspapers, aid workers and NGOs such as Global Witness (an international body dedicated to exposing corruption and improving transparency in natural resources industries) as well as some writers no one speaking openly and less even writing about this? The answer is that they don’t do this for mainly two reasons. Firstly, Burmese jade business is a ‘well kept state secret’ and apart from the insiders no one knows what is really going on, and, secondly, it can be dangerous to make all of this known to a wider international audience. Here in Burma everyone has of course a general picture of the situation in Hpakant and other jade mines, the surrounding area and the jade business in its entirety but the people do either keep their mouths shut or speak of it only confidentially under the cover of anonymity, ‘Mr. xyz who asked not to be named said… ‘. And the common people outside Burma, especially those buying jade jewellery (what also goes for tourists visiting Burma) know nothing about these things and shall be kept from knowing about them or in case they know about the miserable lives of the very people who are digging the jade they are just buying out of the earth they do, alas, turn a blind eye to it.
Reaching the end of my article I like to ask a few questions each reader of this article will have to answer for themselves.
Can we learn lessons from this article?
Can we really say that the Burmese jade mine workers have themselves to blame for their situation?
Can we really say that they are going into the jade mines out of their own free will?
Can we really say that they can leave anytime they want in case they recognise that jade mine work is not for them?
Can we really say their problems are not our problems and turn a blind eye to them?
Can we say that we know about the Burmese jade mine workers problems but do nonetheless buy jade?
Can we really say that there is absolutely nothing we can do about the Burmese jade mine workers’ problems?
Can we really say that the Burmese jade mine workers’ problems do not interest us at all?
I hope you have found this article interesting, have learned from it and that you have given the correct answers to the questions.