YANGON: Rescuers were searching for victims of a huge mine landslide in northern Myanmar Monday as the toll topped 100 in a disaster highlighting the perils of the country’s secretive billion-dollar jade trade.
Authorities in the remote town of Hpakant, the epicenter of the world’s production of highly valuable jade, have pulled scores of bodies from the earth since a huge mountain of debris collapsed onto dozens of flimsy shacks early on Saturday morning.
Those killed are thought to be mainly itinerant workers, who scratch a living picking through the piles of waste left by large-scale industrial mining firms in the hope of stumbling across a previously missed hunk of jade that will deliver them from poverty.
The landslide is thought to be the deadliest in recent memory in the hard to reach and impoverished area, with the official toll reaching 104 according to the Global New Light of Myanmar.
The state-backed newspaper said, “many more people are still missing” after the accident, although authorities have said they did not know precisely how many people had been living in the area.
“The rescue operation is ongoing today and we are still collecting bodies. We have found more than a hundred,” Dashi Naw Lawn, secretary of the Kachin Network Development Foundation, a community group involved in the rescue operation, told AFP.
Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world’s finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is enormously prized in neighboring China, where it is known as the “stone of heaven.”
But while mining firms — many linked to the junta-era military elite — are thought to be raking in huge sums, local people complain they are shut out from the bounty, instead facing abuses and frequent accidents.
In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was $31 billion.
But that figure is around 10 times the official $3.4 billion sales of the precious stone last year, in an industry that has long been shrouded in secrecy with much of the best jade thought to be smuggled directly to China.