When the earth collapsed, as it does nearly every day in the jade hills of Myanmar, Ye Min Naing was poised on a steep slope of rubble and scree. It was a rainy night six months ago, at the tail end of the monsoons. A truck with wheels the height of a man had just deposited loose stones at the edge of the mountain, sending hundreds of scavengers scrambling through the tailings in hopes of finding a precious lump of jade.
Ye Min Naing heard the landslide before he saw it, a bass note that rattled his bones like thunder. Then a friend working near him was swallowed by a surge of earth. Ye Min Naing was buried too. “Up to here,” the 28-year-old says, making a slashing motion at his neck.
Somehow fellow wildcat miners pulled him out, along with a 19-year-old who was left paralyzed by the accident. Three people, Ye Min Naing thinks, were killed, but who really knows? Like many deaths in the mines of Hpakant township in northern Myanmar (once known as Burma), this accident never appeared in the media. No bodies were recovered. Most freelance miners in these hills, which produce nearly every piece of the world’s finest jade, are drug-addicted migrants, strangers to one another and lost to their families. In the months since the landslide, the mass of stony waste at Hmaw Sisar, where Ye Min Naing still forages, has only grown more perilous. “We don’t know who is buried in there,” he says.
Man and rock exist in inverse value in the Himalayan foothills of Myanmar’s Kachin state, wedged between India and China. The rock — a translucent mass of sodium aluminum silicate known as jadeite — is one of the world’s most coveted gems, chiefly among the Chinese, whose growing buying power has spurred record sales. The roughly 300,000 jade pickers who sift through the detritus left by larger mining operations are migrants whose lives are threatened by landslides, drug addiction and disease. Tying the precious stone to dispensable miners is a web of Burmese military-linked firms, Chinese companies, ethnic rebel commanders and drug kingpins wanted by the U.S. government. The stone of heaven, as it is known in China, is also fueling civil war between the Burmese military and ethnic Kachin guerrillas seeking self-rule. Jade comes in many hues, from the shade of a kingfisher’s throat to what the Chinese describe as “moss entangled with melting snow.” But for the people of Myanmar, it is stained, most of all, by blood.
Few countries’ economies are so bound to one resource. Global Witness, an international watchdog that monitors natural-resource exploitation, estimates that Myanmar’s jade trade was worth up to $31 billion in 2014, nearly half the nation’s GDP that year. Yet the industry remains shrouded. The ethnic Kachin, though native to the jade hills, control few of the mines. In the 1990s, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of several ethnic armed groups fighting the state in Myanmar’s borderlands, lost control of territory around Hpakant.
Today most of the big concessions belong to companies or cronies connected to the Burmese military elite. Even as the country has transitioned from five decades of military rule to semicivilian authority, jade has proved the limits of democratic governance. Most stones are smuggled over the border to neighboring China; only a fraction are subject to the tax needed to fill government coffers in one of Asia’s poorest countries. The scale of graft and unaccountability is such that Global Witness calls Myanmar’s jade economy the “biggest natural-resource heist in modern history.”
While conflict diamonds have yielded Hollywood scripts and rap lyrics, jade has largely escaped international scrutiny. Last October, then U.S. President Barack Obama lifted sanctions on the importation of Burmese jade and rubies, which had been put in place because of the gem trade’s abysmal reputation. The repeal was a reward for political reforms that had brought democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party to power in 2016. Many civil-society and watchdog groups, however, were aghast, arguing that the jade industry is still rife with abuses. Though the Burmese government has signed on to a global transparency initiative for extractive industries, the reality in Kachin remains bleak. In fact, fear that Suu Kyi’s administration may soon enforce safety standards and anticorruption regulations has only intensified the race to unearth Hpakant’s green treasure. “They are digging so fast that jade will be gone in 20 years,” says one small-concession holder. “Maybe even in 10 years.”
The world’s best jade mines are sealed off to nearly all foreigners. But I managed to access Hpakant to experience a place so beguiling to 18th century Chinese imperial envoys that hundreds perished en route in the malarial wilderness. The scenes before me look like a cross between a magnified ant farm and a Star Wars set. In the distance I spy what appear to be hundreds of tiny insects clinging to a hillside. As we drive closer, I realize they are men. Backhoes, excavators and giant trucks maneuver through a lunar landscape like creatures from an alien planet. Hpakant was once the domain of tigers and verdant foliage. All I see is dust and brown. Where prospectors used to dig by hand, now explosives and heavy machinery, mostly imported U.S. or Chinese brands, are ripping the entrails out of jungle, demolishing entire mountains within months. Already, Hpakant is mostly dead.
Fatal accidents mount. Only the biggest, like a November 2015 landslide that killed about 200 miners, make headlines. Township officials have recorded hundreds of deaths in jade-mining accidents over the past year and a half. But locals say the real number is many times that. And in the hills, the Burmese army and Kachin rebels continue to wage war. “If there was no jade, there would be no war in Kachin state,” says Yup Zaw Hkawng, an ethnic Kachin who owned large mining concessions before the Burmese military wrested control of Hpakant. “We are living and sleeping on so much jade in our earth, but jade is Kachin’s curse.”
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It is night at Hpakant’s Kyauk Sein Nandaw mine, and I cannot see anything in front of me but the beams of dump trucks barreling toward us. The oversize vehicles move in erratic lines to the edge of a cliff where they will disgorge stones considered too trifling for the big mines to bother sifting through. Shadows of men shift with the trucks’ trajectory. Behind us, the hillsides are covered in pinpricks of light, each the flashlight of a freelance miner striking bits of rock with an iron pick, hoping to hear the distinctive ping that denotes a chunk of jadeite.
Suddenly, a shout goes out. A cacophony of voices magnifies the panic. Miners storm up over the brink of the precipice, rocky debris clattering down the quarry. In the spotlight of my headlamp, I catch isolated images of terror: the whites of widened eyes, grasping limbs and swirls of dust from the tread of frightened feet. The alarm turns out to be false. But less than a month before, at least three people were killed by a landslide at this very mine. A video, recorded on a miner’s cell phone, shows a 400-ft.-long avalanche of earth rolling over human figures.
For years, no Western journalist had reached Hpakant. (Burmese reporters have filed compelling stories.) Frequent checkpoints enforce a ban on foreigners — save Chinese buyers — as do military intelligence, special branch, immigration and other agencies of what, despite Myanmar’s gradual shift from army to civilian rule, remains a police state. As photographer Adam Dean and I make our way back from Kyauk Sein Nandaw mine that night, the inevitable happens. Two trucks filled with soldiers, plus about a dozen security forces, are waiting for us.
During our detention, we are treated with courtesy. We notice that local officials are profiting from jade: one has raw stones rolling around in the trunk of his car. A calendar in the Hpakant immigration office features images of jade mines. After we are released, we are followed on our entire 16-hour road trip out of Hpakant: at every checkpoint and tollbooth, every transition from one township to another, even in parts of Myanmar that are not restricted for foreigners, someone tails us or photographs us. The effort involves hundreds of monitors.
Many of Myanmar’s ministries may now be run by opposition leaders and former democracy activists. But the army that kept the country cowering for so long still exercises great power, especially in jade country. “If you keep the jade business in a black box and don’t let any information get out, it’s hard [for reformers] to put pressure on the people that control the industry,” says Juman Kubba, a senior campaigner at Global Witness who has spent years tracking the Burmese jade trade. Last year she and her colleagues were blocked from reaching Hpakant, even though she had permission to visit from the Myanmar government. In January, while on an in-country tour, Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s human-rights envoy for Myanmar, also complained that she was prevented from going to Hpakant.
In jade country, I get a glimpse of what the industry wants to hide. Last July, the NLD government announced a moratorium on new mining licenses and a freeze on the renewals of existing ones. More than 2,000 mines were ordered to suspend operations while environmental-impact surveys were carried out. Yet miners and small-concession holders in Hpakant allege that some of the biggest — and best-connected — mines are still operating, even when they lack proper certification. “The NLD government has no power,” says Lamai Gum Ja, a Kachin community activist. “It’s like we have no government at all, so the military does what it likes.” At every mine I visit, I can see that safety rules–such as efforts to license wildcat miners and limit the height and gradient of slag heaps in order to prevent fatal landslides — are being flouted. “Before, this area was so beautiful,” says another small-mine owner in Hpakant. “Now it’s turning into hell.”
Sequestered from the outside world, Hpakant radiates a gold-rush lawlessness. Unexplained killings occur with regularity. While we are there, a schoolteacher is shot in the head. The day before, a jade trader died from an executioner’s bullet. Last year bombs exploded at the headquarters of two mining companies. In November, a jade scavenger at Hmaw Sisar mine was shot dead by military intelligence or the KIA, depending on who’s telling the story. “There is no real law in Hpakant,” says one of the immigration officers holding us, with a touch of apology. “We don’t know who to trust.”
The Wild West atmospherics are heightened by the ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known, and the KIA. The largely Christian Kachin have long chafed at rule by the Buddhist Bamar ethnic majority. It is a point of pride among these frontier people that while some Bamar initially collaborated with the Japanese during World War II, the Kachin fought on the Allied side, stringing on necklaces the ears of slain Japanese. In 2011, a 17-year cease-fire with the Burmese government, which is facing renewed fighting in various ethnic strongholds, collapsed. Skirmishes flare near Hpakant; more than 100,000 Kachin have been forced to flee their homes. So thick is the jungle near the jade mines that the KIA uses elephants to resupply its forward bases. The land is stippled with land mines. One day, near Nant Yan village, we see a column of young Tatmadaw recruits, oversize helmets askew on their heads, creeping toward enemy territory. In February, the KIA claimed that the Burmese military had launched an offensive near Hpakant, even as Suu Kyi was pushing ethnic armed groups to sign a national cease-fire agreement.
Both sides in the conflict are using jade to fill their war chests. Jade scavengers, most of whom are not ethnic Kachin, complain that since the fighting intensified, the KIA has raised the levy it makes them pay for selling stones to middlemen. “The KIA say it’s their land, so we have to give them money,” says Aung Thar Tun, a jade picker at Kayin Gyaung mine who lives under a sheet of tarpaulin with his 15-year-old nephew, another scavenger. “If we don’t pay and their informers find out, they will shoot us.”
High-level KIA officials acknowledged to me that taxes on jade are the armed group’s primary source of funds. But it is the Tatmadaw and its cronies that are reaping far greater rewards from Kachin’s jeweled heritage. A 2015 Global Witness report compiling evidence of the companies that control many of the major jade mines in Hpakant reads like a Who’s Who of the military elite and its families, including former junta leader Than Shwe and ex-northern command chief Ohn Myint. Conglomerates linked to the army, with generic names like the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp., hold jade concessions. Both companies were subject to U.S. sanctions until last fall. A major player in Hpakant, locals say, is Wei Hsueh-kang, a former commander of the United Wa State Army, Myanmar’s biggest ethnic armed group. The U.S. State Department has an outstanding reward of up to $2 million for information leading to his capture, based on his alleged role in “the dominant heroin trafficking group in Southeast Asia, and possibly worldwide.”
For all their power, local companies, whether Bamar or ethnic, are often proxies for Chinese firms that cannot legally own mines, say industry researchers and Hpakant concession holders. So deep is the China connection that the Mandarin word for boss, laoban, has entered the Hpakant vocabulary. “Of all the hairs on the head of the jade industry,” says one small-mine owner, “only one strand is Burmese. The rest are all Chinese.” There is a growing sense of frustration in Myanmar that China may be stealing its patrimony. In recent years, demonstrations have erupted over a Chinese-controlled dam project and copper mine. But because the jade business is so opaque, it’s hard for Burmese to know what to protest against. “Everyone knows the Chinese control almost all the jade mines,” says Lamai Gum Ja, the Kachin activist who is also involved in the trade. “We know this, but we can’t do anything about it.”
In Hpakant’s Lone Khin village, Chinese buyers flock to the largest open-air jade market in the world. Beijing’s anticorruption campaign has led to a drop in jade prices, as conspicuous consumption takes on political risk, but there are still plenty of speculators. Scavengers sidle up, dirty palms clutching dirty rocks. Every sale is a gamble. Chunks of jadeite — as opposed to the more common nephrite, which is considered an inferior jade — resemble mud-colored eggs. Buyers try their best to divine what’s within, carefully tapping a stone or holding a flashlight to the shell to check what colors glow beneath. None of these transactions will be recorded by any government.
If a buyer is unlucky, a fault line will mar the clarity. But the value of the finest jade can rival that of diamonds. In 2014, a necklace of 27 beads, once owned by Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, sold at auction for $27 million, more than double the estimate. In a catalog note, Sotheby’s enthused that the beads were “round and succulent in shape and color, like mouth-watering grapes under warm sunlight, glowing through their thin skins, exuberant and mellow, elating the spirit of whoever set eyes on them.”
Such passion for jade helps explains why in less than a decade the number of wildcat miners in Hpakant has roughly doubled, as more mountains are reduced to rubble ready for prospecting. Drug use and disease, too, have soared. Hpakant residents estimate that heroin addiction afflicts 75% to 90% of the jade-pickers. And the needles are almost always shared. Thein Than Myo worked at Hmaw Sisar mine for 12 years. Even after he discovered he was HIV-positive, he kept on using, scavenging needles from the ground of shooting galleries. One Kachin NGO says that up to half of all Hpakant miners will eventually contract the virus.
In December, Thein Than Myo checked into a Catholic HIV shelter in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina. A few weeks into his antiretroviral regimen, he feels better and vows to return to Hpakant. When I tell him I met a miner at Hmaw Sisar who had been buried up to his neck a few months before, he shrugs. “I saw people die in front of me,” he says. “People always die in the mines.” But that does not stop him from dreaming. There is always a tale of a friend of a friend who made impossible riches from Kachin’s jade hills. “I will go one last time,” Thein Than Myo says. “I can still make my fortune.”
— With reporting by Saw Nang/Hpakant
This appears in the March 20, 2017 issue of TIME.