03/29/2014, 00.00
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Growing trade in Burmese jade, but at cost of workers health

In the last quarter of 2013, the export revenue reached $ 290 million. The total volume of trade is worth at least eight billion dollars. But the industry also attracts the smuggling and exploitation of miners, subjected to harsh conditions and with soaring HIV cases.

Yangon ( AsiaNews / Agencies) In the final three quarters of 2013, export earnings from Myanmar's jade trade reached 0 million-up more than a third from a year earlier-according to newly released figures from the country's Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. However, this large sum is almost certainly an underestimate of the true value, because most of the precious stones are smuggled out of the country by traffickers. It certainly is not included in the official government statistics or in the vaults of the fiscal register.

A study prepared in 2011 by Harvard Ash Center estimates the total value of trade in jade in Myanmar at eight billion dollars. A substantial sum, despite U.S. sanctions that still remain in force regarding trade in jade and other precious stones such as rubies.

Recently the U.S. president Barack Obama removed a lot of economic and trade sanctions on Myanmar, in force during the military dictatorship.  However he chose to keep the restrictions on the trade in precious metals as a result of substantial human rights abuse of the miners and, more generally, those involved in the industry.

Most mining takes place in the northern state of Kachin, bordering China. The area is subject to conflict between the Burmese army and the Kachin rebel militias, fighting for greater autonomy from Naypyidaw. Over the past two years, the clashes have resumed with greater intensity, leading to deaths, injuries and displacement of the civilian population.

Controversy has been sparked over the ownership - and exploitation - of the mines, because a constant monitoring on a national scale is impossible and international observers (along with NGOs) are not allowed to operate in the region. As was revealed in a recent survey by Reuters, the miners often work in inhuman and prohibitive conditions, abused by managers, exposed to many health risks.

In many cases, mines employ workers with addiction problems. In particular, "shooting galleries" for heroin users operate openly alongside some large jade mines. With needles shared indiscriminately by multiple users, the rate of HIV has skyrocketed. In the township of Hpakant in Kachin state, health workers told Reuters that 40 percent of heroin-using jade miners are infected with HIV. The largest number of customers are across the border in China, and it is not uncommon to observe traffickers who cross the border to bring jade and other precious metals. This trade has increased exponentially with the sanctions imposed by the United States in 2008.


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