How a Beloved Gemstone Became a Symbol of Environmental Tragedy in Myanmar

The jade gemstones that generate billions of dollars a year in Myanmar — the world’s biggest exporter of the stone — are beloved in China, where they can sell for more than gold. But they are a symbol of tragedy and suffering for the people who live and work in the country’s mines in Hpakant, in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State.

Lahtaw Kai Ring, a former jade miner and a mother of six, recalls what the area was like when she first moved to the township in 1989. The Uru Stream was clean and clear, and people harvested a freshwater oyster — called n-hypa law in the local Jinghpaw language — in its waters.

“Now [people] don’t even know what n-hypa law is,” she says — they don’t see that oyster in the stream anymore. “Hpakant’s environment is destroyed. Mountains became valleys and valleys became mountains. Rivers, streams and creeks are upside-down, shifted into chaos.”

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EMILY FISHBEIN AND AUNG MYAT LAMUNG; Additional reporting by Jaw Tu Hkawng.