Kachin, Myanmar's northernmost state, holds much of the country's resource wealth. It possesses the world’s most lucrative jade mines, is the world’s largest supplier of heavy rare earths, and contains some of the country’s most biodiverse forests; it is also rich in gold and holds amber which has yielded numerous scientific discoveries. Tissue-culture banana farming and opium poppy farming are also significant industries in the state.
Kachin shares a long eastern border with China’s Yunnan province, and the illicit movement of goods across the border is rampant. Chinese companies and businesspeople have also exploited weak rule of law and cheap labor in Kachin, and demand from China has fueled much of the resource extraction in the state. The state is also heavily armed: the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Organization/ Army, one of Myanmar’s most well-established ethnic armed organizations, have been at war for six decades, while numerous militias and paramilitary groups hold territory in parts of the state. All of these groups are deeply involved in Kachin’s resource economies, both as a way to fund their activities and as a source of wealth for corrupt elites.
While Kachin’s resources have benefited armed actors, wealthy elites, and Chinese businesspeople and companies, however, local people have suffered the consequences. Land grabs are common, while deforestation has contributed to erosion, landslides and flooding. Water and soil contamination have also affected locals’ health and livelihoods.
February 1, 2021 military coup has accelerated all of these problems. A collapse in rule of law has converged with a deteriorating formal economy to drive ordinary people to turn to resources for their livelihoods, while wealthy elites and armed groups have taken advantage of the situation to increase their exploitation of Kachin’s land and resources. Escalating civil war has further perpetuated the resource grab, as the military and other armed actors look to resources for funds. Although China has restricted the movement of goods across the Myanmar border to curb the spread of COVID-19, the illicit trade of Kachin’s lucrative resources is still thriving. This reporting project provides an in-depth look at how these dynamics are playing out on the ground.