HPAKANT, Myanmar – Tens of thousands of Myanmar youth come to Hpakant, the region where the world’s rarest and most valuable types of jade are found, with hope and dreams of escaping from poverty and making their fortunes.
But many of these migrant workers, after back breaking work in dangerous mines, see their dreams of a better future disappear into a nightmare of addiction as they fall into the trap of cheap heroin and other drugs.
The town of Hpakant lies in Kachin State, in the far north of Myanmar. It has a reputation as a remote and wild area, harsh and impoverished, that nevertheless produces huge wealth for some, as the rare mineral jadeite, the world’s highest quality jade, can be found underground here.
At the coalface of jade extraction, where landslides and other mining accidents are all too frequent, the cost of a dose of heroin is 3,000 Myanmar kyats (about $2.30). Many workers, exhausted from the hard task of excavating jade and scavenging through dumped soil and rock for scraps of the mineral, while living on land at the mine’s edge, quickly spiral downwards into drug addiction and the debilitating physical and mental decline that accompanies it.
Today, drug addiction has become one of the biggest problems facing Kachin, with an increasing number of female addicts in the state.
Authorities estimate that 80 percent of the female inmates in Myitkyina prison, located in the Kachin state capital, ended up there after committing drug-related offenses, which carry a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
Many analysts place the blame for the increasing number of female addicts on a lack of treatment centers.
Panjasan, a community-based anti-narcotic Christian organization, has opened 24 rehabilitation centers in Kachin and western Shan State.
But only one of these centers, located in Myitkyina, 112 kilometers from the mines, exclusively treats female addicts.
A report published in October 2015 by international NGO Global Witness, the result of a 12-month investigation, said the jade industry in Myanmar was worth up to $31 billion in 2014 alone, a figure that is nearly half of the country’s GDP.
But little of the wealth it generated was returned to the people or the state, the report said.
Highly prized in China for many centuries, Myanmar jadeite is exported to other Asian lands for cutting and processing into jewelry and other products.