Ruby rush: Myanmar gem hunters exploit law change

24 May, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Ruby rush: Myanmar gem hunters exploit law change

MOGOK: Burrowing deep underground, thousands of informal miners risk their lives to find gleaming red gems as a law change spurs opportunity in Myanmar’s “land of rubies”, reports AFP.

Emperors, kings and warlords have long fought over the valley of Mogok in Mandalay region, where the unique “pigeon-blood” stones lie hidden.

The Mogok rubies are the most expensive in the world, with the highest-quality jewels fetching multi-million dollar prices in an industry notoriously bereft of regulation. 

For years, private companies were permitted to mine in a joint venture with state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise.

But a recent law change—aimed at reining in big companies digging hundreds of metres deep—means many licences have not been renewed, and the former diggings have been invaded by artisanal miners.

With no security protecting the sites, locals—many former employees of the mining companies and long marginalised in the trade—have rushed in to stake a claim.

Now the openings of makeshift shafts, some just metres apart, pepper crowded sites, with teams working around the clock to bring up buckets of soil from depths of 30 metres (100 feet).

The holes lead down into a maze of bamboo-supported tunnels just wide enough for the men to inch along on their bellies, while long tubes feed oxygen into the shafts.

“Sometimes you hit another tunnel when you’re digging underground,” one miner, asking not to be named, tells AFP on a break from his shift, covered in mud and kitted out with head torch and walkie-talkie.

Team members haul buckets to muddy pools to clean away dirt, before sifting through piles of pebbles for a telltale red glint.