The handpickers are at the bottom of the heap — literally. They swarm in their hundreds across mountains of rubble dumped by the mining companies. It is perilous work, especially when banks and slag heaps are destabilized by monsoon rain.
Landslides routinely swallow 10 or 20 men at a time, said Too Aung, 30, a handpicker from the Kachin town of Bhamo.
“Sometimes we can’t even dig out their bodies,” he said. “We don’t know where to look.”
In 2002, at least a thousand people were killed when flood waters inundated a mine, Jadeland Myanmar chairman Yup Zaw Hkawng said.
Deaths are common, but routinely concealed by companies eager to avoid suspending operations, he said.
The boom in Hpakant’s population coincided with an exponential rise in opium production in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest producer after Afghanistan. Its derivative, heroin, is cheap and widely available in Kachin, and Hpakant’s work force seems to run on it.
About half the handpickers use heroin, while others rely on opium or alcohol, said Tin Soe, 53, a jade trader and a local leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party.
“It’s very rare to find someone who doesn’t do any of these,” he said.
Official figures on heroin use in Hpakant are hard to get. The few foreign aid workers operating in the area, mostly working with drug users, declined comment for fear of upsetting relations with the Myanmar government. However, health workers say privately about 40 percent of injecting drug users in Hpakant are HIV-positive — twice the national average.
Drug use is so intrinsic to jade mining that “shooting galleries” operate openly in Hpakant, with workers often exchanging lumps of jade for hits of heroin.
Soe Moe, 39, came to Hpakant in 1992. Three years later, he was sniffing heroin, then injecting it. His habit now devours his earnings as a handpicker.
“When I’m on [heroin], I feel happier and more energetic. I work better,” he said.
The shooting gallery he frequents accommodates hundreds of users.
“The place is so busy it’s like a festival,” he said.
Soe Moe said he did not fear arrest, because the gallery owners paid off the police.
Twenty years ago, Hpakant was controlled by KIA insurgents who for a modest fee granted access to small prospectors. Four people with iron picks could live off the jade harvested from a small plot of land, said Yitnang Ze Lum of the Myanmar Gems and Jewelry Entrepreneurs Association in Myitkyina.
A 1994 ceasefire brought most of Hpakant back under government control, and large-scale extraction began, with hundreds of backhoes, earthmovers and trucks working around the clock.
“Now even a mountain lasts only three months,” Yitnang Ze Lum said.
Many Kachin businessmen, unable to compete in terms of capital or technology, were shut out of the industry. Non-Kachin workers poured in from across Myanmar, looking for jobs and hoping to strike it rich.
The mines were closed in the middle of last year, when the conflict flared up again. Myanmar’s military shelled suspected KIA positions; the rebels retaliated with ambushes along the Hpakant road. Thousands of people were displaced. Jade production plunged to just 19.08 million kilograms in the 2012-2013 fiscal year from 43.1 million kilograms the previous year.