In the final three quarters of 2013, export earnings from Myanmar’s jade trade reached $920 million—up more than a third from a year earlier—according to newly released figures from the country’s Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development.
But even that hefty sum almost certainly grossly underestimates the total value, as much of the jade is smuggled out of Myanmar (formerly known in the West as Burma) and never logged in government books or tax logs. A 2011 study by the Harvard Ash Center estimated the annual value of Myanmar’s jade trade to be $8 billion.
While President Obama has relaxed most trade sanctions imposed on Myanmar during the era of military junta rule, the U.S. retains the ban on importing jade (and ruby) from Myanmar—owing to the human-rights abuses that frequently accompany the mining.
Much of the prized jade in Myanmar is mined in northern Kachin state, where the 8,000-person Kachin Independence Army is fighting for independence. The ownership of the mines is unclear; national oversight is impossible; and international monitors and nongovernmental organizations are not able to operate in the region.
As Reuters reported in a harrowing investigation last fall, jade miners often labor in unsafe conditions, face abusive managers, and are exposed to myriad other risks. In particular, “shooting galleries” for heroin users operate openly alongside some large jade mines. With needles shared indiscriminately by multiple users, the rate of HIV has skyrocketed. In the township of Hpakant in Kachin state, health workers told Reuters that 40 percent of heroin-using jade miners are infected with HIV.
The largest customer for Myanmar’s jade is neighboring China, and illegal trade across the border has grown quickly since the U.S. imposed sanctions on jade and other gemstones went in 2008. Much as diamonds hold a special place in the minds of American consumers, it would require a massive shift in public perception to convince Chinese buyers that Myanmar’s precious stones constitute “blood jade.”