by Fred Ward
(With new photographs of the mines supplied by Bill Larson, Pala International)
Fred Ward at Burma's famed Hpakangyi jade mine in 2001. Behind him are most of the 10,000 day laborers who hand-carry the debris so pickers can get out the new jade.
This amazing scene in 2001 shows most of the 10,000 day laborers who walk down with empty baskets and trudge upward carrying two baskets of dirt. In 2000 time they were paid about 2-3 cents a trip. The importance of this photo is to note the depth these workers have reached and the number of workers employed at the world's largest jade mine. Most of the world's quality jadeite came from this gigantic hole.
The amazing thing is that the mine was profitable at all. But labor was cheap then and a pliable labor force was always available. Even the company employees relied on primitive tools. To see if a just-overturned stone might be jadeite, the employee would hit it with steel rod. If it chimed, it was a "keeper." And this is how jadeite was mined from the 1700s until 2001.
Burma's Pharkantgyi Hmaw (jade mine)
And then everything began to change. Different owners and dealers wanted more access to jadeite sites and even the small wages paid seemed too much for the managers. So thousands of "coolies" were out and heavy equipment was in. There are people on the crest, but mainly this is a strip-mining site for jade.
Burma's Nump Hmaw (jade mine) in 2000
The Burmese pattern has now spread through the jade areas. If there is a "find," no matter how small, the tendency is to strip-mine it quickly to see how much jade can be extracted.
Burma's Pharkant Gyi Hmaw (jade mine)
This jade mine seems to be an exception. It is patterned after the huge Hpakangyi mine (above) just outside the northern Burmese city of Hpakan and in 2000 it was still using huge numbers of people to carry out the debris.
Burma's Mawmaune Bum (jade mine)
Look at this mine. There are almost no people to be seen. And it too has been strip-mined to extract every piece of jade. Whole mountains were taken down in the process and this huge scar on the landscape was left as it was.
Burma's Metlinchaung Hmaw (jade mine)
Here is another example of jade mining patterns in Burma. Again, the area was basically strip-mined and left. Nothing will grow on the rocks for a very long time. But the growing mining pattern has become clear. When prospectors find anything promising, large equipment is brought in, housing is built, and the huge mechanical shovels are brought in to extract tons of rocks, dirt, (and hopefully jade). Once the site plays out, the workers move on.
Burma's Metlin Chaung Hmaw (jade mine)
Some sites are beautiful despite the digging. This is a beautiful area, with homes on the crest and lovely green mountains everywhere. The jade area was on the lower right while it was in operation. Like all the rest of the mines, the area is worked only as long as jade is found. Once it plays out or requires more depth than is economical, the companies and miners move on.
Burma's Sha Yaw Hka Hmaw (jade mine) in 2004
This is an interesting site because it has so many homes in areas that you would normally expect jade mining. Homes are built in areas where there is no jade, or built on tailings after the jade has been mined. This area was once filled with plants and trees and is now pretty much a sand and rock box.
Burma's Kyaukkyi Kone Hmaw (jade mine) in 2006
Here is one of Burma's newest jade mines. The company and miners have actually stripped a mountain. The intent is to mine the entire site, systematically stripping layer after layer, checking for jade, and pushing the debris rocks over the edges. This rapid increase in jade mining in Burma has transformed the landscape.