Small-time jade pickers risk death and injury staking a claim in the multi-billion dollar black mining industry.
Lack of government oversight and military cronyism are to blame for poor conditions in Myanmar’s jade-mining industry, highlighted by the disaster which killed at least 113 people on Saturday, environmental activists say.
Emergency services continued to search for survivors in the northern Kachin state on Monday after a landslide buried an encampment near a jade mine.
Activists said that the “rush for profit” in the lucrative jade mining industry led businesses and the government to overlook the already “very weak” regulations in the country.
“This could have been prevented if they were following the proper environmental management rules,” Paul Sein Twa, of the Burma Environmental Working Group, told Al Jazeera.
He warned of more accidents if the government did not enforce policies that have only been recently passed.
“This is a big lesson for the government, companies and people in the area that they cannot ignore these issues.”
Sayamak Khon Ja, founder of the Kachin Peace Network, said authorities were expecting to find “hundreds more” bodies from the site of the accident in Hpakant.
According to reports, most of the victims and the missing were small-scale miners who try to make a living from the piles of waste left behind by big mining companies.
At least 70 huts were buried under tonnes of soil and rocks when the incident happened early on Saturday.
‘Mining drives conflict’
Environmental problems related to jade mining pre-date the passage of government laws in 2012 regulating the industry, according to Day Wei Thant Sin, founder of the Myanmar Green Network.
“There have been so many protests against these projects,” she said.
“The rules are very weak and the authorities don’t take action at all. That’s why all this is happening.”
Day Wei Thant Sin said it was unclear how the incoming government, under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) would address the problem.
A senior NLD official told Al Jazeera on Monday that opposition members were asked “not to talk out loud the details about these kind of topics” until the new government is set up.
But party spokesman Win Htein told AFP news agency that some members were helping out with the search-and-rescue operations on site.
Landslides are a common hazard in the area. Three incidents have already taken place in the Kachin state this year but Saturday’s was the worst the country has witnessed in recent times.
People living off the industry’s waste pick their way across perilous mounds under the cover of darkness, driven by the hope that they might find a chunk of jade worth thousands of dollars.
According to a Global Witness report, the jade trade in Myanmar was valued at $31bn in 2014, equivalent to “nearly half the GDP” of the country.
But the report said that most of the income goes to private entities because the industry “is secretly controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords and crony companies associated with the darkest days of junta rule”.
An Al Jazeera investigation also revealed last year that the mining industry has fuelled rampant drug abuse in Kachin.
Paul Sein Twa said the “military and their cronies” are “definitely” behind the mining industry in northern Myanmar, something that “is also driving the conflicts in Kachin and Shan states”.