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Hpakant miners back at work after deadly landslide

Miners in Burma’s northern Kachin State are continuing to risk their lives to find precious stones less than a week after a landslide killed more than a hundred people in Hpakant.

On Saturday, a man-made mountain of earth excavated from nearby jade mines collapsed in the early hours of the morning, smashing into a makeshift settlement and burying mineworkers as they slept.

Poorly paid workers, many of them migrants from other parts of the country, toil long hours in the mines or pick over dumpsites for pieces of jade that have been left behind.

“We have nothing to do in my hometown. But here, we can be rich just by getting a piece of precious stone. That’s why many people come here with big ambitions,” said one worker, 22-year-old Thein Tun from Arakhan state.

Officials in Hpakant have said rescue operations from Saturday’s incident are slowing and no bodies had been recovered since the 114th body was discovered on Tuesday.

In the biggest jade market in Hpakant, one seller said business had slowed.

“Before this, there were more people who came to sell and buy gem stones in the market. But after the landslide, there are less people here. We are sad about this as well,” said Than Than Aye, a 45-year-old jade buyer.

The value of jade production in Burma was estimated at around $31 billion in 2014, according to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness.

Just over a third of that value showed up in official Chinese trade data, and much of the jade that is mined in Hpakant itself is believed to be smuggled to neighbouring China, where the stone is highly valued.

The US Treasury maintains a ban on imports of jade from the country and includes the industry among “specific activities and actors that contribute to human rights abuses and undermine Burma’s democratic reform process.”

Burma’s newly elected government said on Tuesday it planned to tighten control over the country’s poorly regulated jade mines after the landslide.

The jade industry is dominated by companies linked to leaders of the previous military government, ethnic armies and businessmen with close connections to the former junta.