This region has long been under control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s strongest ethnic rebel groups, which imposes its own taxes on the amber mining.
Thousands of men were seen toiling on various mining sites in the sparsely populated, rugged area during a visit by this photographer in July. The teams of miners said they paid around $400 to the KIA, which would provide them with license papers so they could exploit an area of some 1,000 square meters.
The miners would then clear the forest and log some of the giant, sub-tropical trees in order to make wooden beams and planks that support the tunnels, which run some 30 to 100 meters underground.
The men place a long plastic pipe into the shafts and use a motorized pump to channel a sufficient amount of oxygen down into the tunnel, where workers dig for amber deposits by hand. Sometimes deadly accidents occur because of problems with oxygen supply or electrical wiring, the workers said.
The income generated from a mining plot is divided among a group of workers, and the men are willing to work hard and take risks as plots in the area are generally known to produce ample amber.
Soon after my visit, however, the Myanmar army sent troops into the area to shutdown the mines - ostensibly because the operations are illegal and environmentally damaging, though it seems more likely that the army wanted to take away the KIA’s sources of income.
Myanmar’s decades-old civil war has long revolved in part around army and state control over the rich natural resources in the ethnic borderlands. This control has been opposed by ethnic minorities, who demand political autonomy, an end to repression, and a share of revenues of local resources, which include gold, jade, amber, and high-value timber.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power last year and has said it wants to reform natural resource management and revenue-sharing, while it also seeks a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic rebel groups. So far, progress towards improving mining and resource management laws has been limited, while the peace process has hit deadlock.
Ahead of the military offensive in Tanai Township, army helicopters dropped leaflets warning miners to leave or face criminal charges over their unlicensed activities. As fighting erupted near the gold and amber mining sites, thousands of miners, as well as thousands of local Kachin villagers, fled the area.
Conflict has since raged between the army and rebel forces in Tanai Township, causing many poor miners to lose an important source of income for which they invested money, risked their lives, and spent countless days of backbreaking work.