Behind the Dream: A Family Broken by a Jade Mining Disaster

The Hpakant region of Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State is home to the world’s largest single source of jade—and the most lucrative. The industry generates billions of dollars annually, primarily through illicit sales to China.

Racked by corruption, poor regulation and policies that favour a handful of elites, little of the wealth reaches the average citizen, while the state suffers from underdevelopment and a long-running civil war. Since Hpakant was carved into mining concessions in the 1990s, intensive extraction with heavy machinery has replaced the hand mining of previous times. This has left deep pits surrounded by steep mountains and cliffs of mining waste which are vulnerable to collapse during the rainy season, sending lakes of rainwater, rocks and mud into the valleys below. At any given time, 300,000 itinerant miners are thought to be searching for jade in precarious conditions in Hpakant. Without the opportunity to work legally, they dig without licenses during company break hours, overnight and during the rainy season—when companies shut down due to landslide risks. Every year, these landslides claim dozens of jade miners’ lives. On 2 July 2020, a landslide in a mining area known as Gwi Hka buried over 170 people alive, making it the deadliest incident in Hpakant’s recorded history.

This comic tells the story of one imagined Kachin man searching for jade in Hpakant. He dreams of finding a valuable stone and buying his daughter a bicycle, only to perish in the Gwi Hka landslide.

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Artist’s note: I am deeply sorry for those who died in Hpakant’s landslides and their families. Most jade miners come to Hpakant because their families’ livelihoods depend on it. Hpakant’s miners all have dreams to find valuable jade, but some die of addiction to alcohol or heroin, while others die in landslides. I have drawn this comic strip in an effort to understand and sympathise with miners’ lives and to encourage you, as readers, to do the same.

Art and story: Shawanang
Lettering/ Layout: Charis Loke
Introduction text and coordination: Emily Fishbein
Editing: Charis Loke, Matt Surrusco

This comic has been translated into English from Burmese.

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