A landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar has killed at least 162 people and wounded another 54, officials say, in one of the worst-ever accidents to hit the treacherous industry.
The incident took place early on Thursday in the jade-rich Hpakant area of Kachin state after a bout of heavy rainfall, the Myanmar Fire Services Department said on Facebook.
“By 7:15 pm, 162 bodies were found, and 54 injured people were sent” to nearby hospitals, Myanmar’s fire service department said on its official Facebook page.
“The jade miners were smothered by a wave of mud,” the statement said.
Photos posted on the Facebook page showed a search and rescue team wading through a valley apparently flooded by the mudslide.
‘No one could help them’
Maung Khaing, a 38-year-old miner from the area, said he saw a towering pile of waste that looked on the verge of collapse and was about to take a picture when people began shouting “run, run!”
“Within a minute, all the people at the bottom [of the hill] just disappeared,” he told Reuters news agency by phone.
“I feel empty in my heart. I still have goosebumps … There were people stuck in the mud shouting for help, but no one could help them.”
Than Hlaing, a member of a local civil society group helping in the aftermath of the disaster, said those killed were informal workers scavenging the waste left by a larger mining company.
“There’s no hope for the families to get compensation as they were freelance miners,” she said. “I don’t see any route to escape this kind of cycle. People take risks, go into landfills, as they have no choice.”
Global Witness, the London-based environmental watchdog, said the accident “is a damning indictment of the government”s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices in Kachin state’s jade mines”.
“The government should immediately suspend large-scale, illegal and dangerous mining in Hpakant and ensure companies that engage in these practices are no longer able to operate,” it said in a statement.
Fatal landslides are common in the poorly regulated mines of Hpakant, the victims often from impoverished communities who risk their lives hunting the translucent green gemstone.
The government of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to clean up the industry when it took power in 2016, but activists say little has changed.
Official sales of jade in Myanmar were worth $750.4m in 2016-2017, according to data published by the government as part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
But experts believe the true value of the industry, which mainly exports to China, is much larger.
The most detailed estimate of Myanmar’s jade industry said it generated about $31bn in 2014.
Northern Myanmar’s abundant natural resources – including jade, timber, gold and amber – have also helped finance both sides of a decades-long conflict between ethnic Kachin and the military.
The fight to control the mines and the revenues they bring frequently traps local civilians in the middle.