• Kachin

In Conflict-Hit Northern Myanmar,

Miners Dig For Million-Year-Old Amber

Images by
Hkun Lat
Text by
Hkun Lat and Paul Vrieze
JUNE 2017, TANAI TOWNSHIP, Kachin State — In the dense forests of northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, hundreds of men are hard at work clearing massive trees and risking their lives in hand-dug mineshafts deep underground to search for valuable, fossilized organic matter.
Hkun Lat/NRGI
The poor workers here in Zee Phyu Kong Village are mining for amber: translucent, shiny pieces of tree resin that were buried and compressed many millions of years ago, and that man has long prized as gemstones.

The area around the town of Tanai, located near Kachin State’s border with northeastern India, is rich in both gold and amber deposits. In recent years the area has attracted a growing number of itinerant miners from across Myanmar, who expanded the operations in order to supply growing Chinese and domestic demand for amber and gold jewelry.

Hkun Lat/NRGI
Though much smaller than Myanmar’s famous billion-dollar jade industry, which is excavated at Kachin State’s notorious Hpakant mines, there is a lively amber trade involving hundreds of smaller traders.

Kachin State’s amber varies in translucent colors, ranging from different shades of yellow, to bright red and dark green. It is known to contain an abundance of fossils of extinct plants and animals that were trapped in tree resin in a long-vanished world.

Hkun Lat/NRGI
Hkun Lat/NRGI
The latter quality of the Kachin deposists has drawn the interest of evolutionary scientists from around the world. This year alone, they reported finding a unique dinosaur tail with feathers, a complete baby bird of at least 79 million years old, and a 100-million-year-old, perfectly preserved flower in amber from Myanmar.

But these fascinating characteristics are largely unknown and of little relevance to the workers that mine the amber. Their focus is on securing their daily income and survival, which is regularly at risk from the dangerous work and ongoing ethnic conflict.

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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.

Hkun Lat/NRGI
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.

Hkun Lat/NRGI
Hkun Lat/NRGI
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.

Hkun Lat/NRGI
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.

Hkun Lat/NRGI

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.