YANGON (AFP) – A landslide in Myanmar’s northern jade mining region has killed at least 12 people and many more are missing, officials said Tuesday, the latest deadly accident to hit the shadowy but lucrative industry.
The bodies were recovered after a wall of unstable earth collapsed Monday night following heavy rain in the town of Hpakant in Kachin state, the centre of a multi-billion-dollar trade that feeds a huge demand for the precious stones from neighbouring China.
“We retrieved seven dead bodies last night and five more this morning,” a police officer in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw told AFP, requesting anonymity.
But the rescue mission has been halted amid renewed rain which threaten to trigger a fresh landslide.
At least 15 people were injured and an estimated 30 others are missing, the officer added.
Confirming the death toll Nilar Myint, a local official in Hpakant, said around 50 people were searching for the stone when an earth wall inside the mine collapsed.
“We are checking homes near the landslide to see who is missing among their friends and relatives,” she told AFP.
The area has suffered a string of deadly landslides over the past year, with a major incident in Hpakant last November killing over 100.
Numerous other smaller accidents have left scores more dead or injured, including a landslide that killed 13 people earlier this month.
The victims are usually itinerant workers scouring the area for chunks of jade overlooked by the industrial mining firms that have carved up the once-forested landscape.
A resident told AFP hundreds of people have been searching for jade in the craters scooped out by the mining giants during Myanmar’s rainy season, when major companies cease operations.
“We think about 200 people were working in that area when the landslide occurred last night… there could be many more casualties,” the resident said on condition of anonymity, adding that rain and poor roads have hampered the rescue.
Myanmar is the chief source of the world’s finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is prized in China, where it is known as the “stone of heaven”.
But while mining firms — many linked to the country’s junta-era military elite — are thought to be raking in huge sums, locals say they do not share in the bounty.
In an October report corruption watchdog Global Witness estimated that Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was worth $31 billion, with huge profits going to figures from the powerful military and the former junta.
Much of the best jade is thought to be smuggled directly to China.
The group said the secretive jade industry might be the “biggest natural resource heist in modern history”.