Gold in the lair of the tiger: Big cats vs big profits

When the Burmese junta agreed to protect a vast tract of wilderness, the world was astonished. But the move also sparked the exploitation of the region's natural wealth, as Peter Popham reports

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The American big cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, prime mover of the Wildlife Conservation Society, prides himself on going where lesser conservationists fear to tread. In the 1980s, this bull-headed biologist from Brooklyn coaxed the government of Belize into creating the world's first and only jaguar reserve. Years later he made a close study of a wildlife sanctuary for big cats in Thailand which obtained Unesco-protected status as a result.

The boldest gamble of his career has been to brave widespread condemnation by going into Burma and working with the military junta to create the world's biggest tiger conservation park. But in a new report published today, investigators claim the park has become infested with dozens of large-scale gold mines which are wreaking havoc with its environment and killing off the wildlife.

Kachin state, in the far north of Burma, is home to some of the last real areas of virgin wilderness in Asia. There are no major cities or towns; the only important road, the so-called Burma Road linking India and China, was built during the Second World War by the American military. It is home to a fabulous array of minerals and precious stones, including imperial jade (it's one of the world's only two sources), diamonds, rubies, and gold, plenty of it. But exploitation of these treasures has been a homely, amateurish affair: gold prospecting was the pastime of small boys with wooden pans, messing about in the wild rivers for pocket money while their parents concentrated on the serious business of growing rice.

The stagnation imposed by Burma's long-running military dictator Ne Win was a blessing of sorts for Kachin state. The dozen Kachin tribes, mostly Christian and with a language and writing system distinct from other Burmese ethnic groups, were left largely to their own devices. And the fabulous array of wildlife, including hundreds of tigers and elephants, had the forests to themselves. Logging and the growing of the opium poppy and mining for gems were all small-scale.

All that began to change in 1988, when Ne Win was deposed and a new set of generals clawed their way to power, naming themselves Slorc, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. They killed thousands of pro-democracy students, put democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and in 1990 brushed aside the general election result that saw Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, obtain 80 per cent of the popular vote. As Slorc, and subsequently the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), they began the task of pacifying the rest of the nation.

In 1994 the Kachin came to the negotiating table and cut a deal with the regime. And that was when life in the wilderness of Kachin state began to change. Ethnic Kachin tribes no longer had the region to themselves. The military, a temporary and fleeting presence in the area until then, began building permanent camps. Ethnic Burmans began to move in, Chinese merchants arrived and set up shop. And for the first time ever the systematic exploitation of the natural wealth of the area got under way.

It was also around this time that the American big-cat conservationist rolled up. Alan Rabinowitz, whose wife is Thai, had done pioneering work on saving big cats in Thailand, Laos and Taiwan. But from his base in Thailand he looked hungrily over the border to Burma. Kachin was one of the world's most important "biodiversity hotspots". But it remained a closed book to the outside world: the last Western scientist to have a good look at it was the British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, in the 1900s.

The region's wildlife had never been properly documented. The only thing for sure was that there was plenty of it, including many, many tigers - but it enjoyed scant protection under Slorc. The military regime admitted to devoting a paltry 0.1 per cent of GDP to wildlife conservation.

In the early 1990s therefore, Alan Rabinowitz marched into the Ministry of Forestry in Rangoon and badgered the Forestry Minister into doing a deal. He led a gruelling exploratory trek through Kachin state, and sketched the outlines of four national parks within it. The first to be established was Hkakabo Razi, around the mountain of the same name, Burma's tallest, which borders Tibet and China.

From being a country with a negligible quantity of protected wilderness, within a decade Burma had quite a bit. The four reserves for which Rabinowitz had lobbied constituted what was called the Northern Forest Complex, an area the size of Belgium. And in 2004 the jewel in the crown, the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve, was tripled in size to become the largest tiger reserve in the world, with an area of 13,500 square miles (21,802 km): a region of vast forests and untamed rivers in the western part of Kachin near the Indian border, between the Kumon mountain range to the east and the Patkai mountains to the west, replete with tiger (around 100 of them, according to a count in 2003), clouded leopards, black bears, sambar, a previously undiscovered species, the leaf deer, and much else.

The process was certainly accelerated by the fact that there was no requirement to put it before parliament. As Rabinowitz commented to National Geographic magazine, "It's much harder to get conservation done in democracies than in communist countries or dictatorships."

Those words, however, may come back to haunt him. For as a report published today reveals, the Burmese junta have been playing both sides of the street. While gaily endorsing Rabinowitz's ambitious schemes, they have also been facilitating - and making immense profits from - an unprecedented gold rush into the very zones where his conservation effort is focused.

The report, entitled Valley of Darkness - Gold Mining and Militarisation in Burma's Hugawng Valley, published by the Kachin Development Networking Group, painstakingly describes how the military have colonised the previously virgin Hugawng Valley. Since the ceasefire with the Karen Independence Organisation in 1994, new military bases have sprung up all over the state, with private homes strategically placed by roads confiscated for military use and 41 battalions of the army stationed in the state.

The small-scale gold mining business of the past has been transformed into a large-scale mechanised industry, as the junta sold off concessions to eight selected companies for huge sums. The number of important gold mining sites in the Hugawng Valley has increased from 14 in 1994 to 31 today. A gold-mining company employee told the writers of the report about the procedure for obtaining a concession.

"You must pay at least 10m kyat (about £800,000) to the Mining Department," he said. "But that money doesn't go through official channels. You pay that as a present to the Mining Minister through his personal assistant." Further enormous bribes - 50-70m kyat (£3-£5m) to the Northern Commander and 300-500m (£24-£40m) to the same official for the "Kachin State SPDC fund" - are required before a company can be sure of its right to mine.

Despite the regime's ostensible commitment to the wildlife reserves, the report says no trouble is taken to contain the catastrophic environmental damage that large-scale gold mining causes. Laws requiring companies to rehabilitate worked-out mines are not enforced, and as the concept of environmental impact assessment does not exist in Burma, there is no mechanism for assessing the damage a mine may cause in advance.

The report claims that this lack of supervision has "caused environmental damage throughout Kachin state, including in biodiverse areas. Land, including forests, is indiscriminately cleared for hydraulic and pit-mining operations. Pit mining guts the remaining soil, leaving it pock-marked with a series of tunnels up to 20 feet long and 10 feet deep, while hydraulic mining blasts away soil causing erosion on river banks. Wastes from the mining process, including mercury-contaminated rocks and soil, are left discarded throughout the other-worldly landscape. Grazing grounds and habitats for animals are destroyed as well as plant life that could once grow in the areas."

One result is the near-disappearance of once-common gibbons, rarely seen in the Hugawng Valley today. "We villagers felt warm at heart whenever we heard a gibbon singing in the jungle," commented a Christian deacon living in the valley. "But we can no longer hear their songs."

With the opening of large mines, the social evils found in places like the notorious jade- and gold-mining shanty city of Hpakant are moving north to the Hugawng Valley. Small-scale opium production has been a feature of Kachin state for many years, but with the arrival of an army of labourers, a tide of opium, heroin and metamphetamines is pouring into the townships that spring up around the mines.

"Those who had ties with government officials were allowed to engage in the drug trade," says the report. "One interviewee estimated that 80 per cent of people in the Tong Mali gold-mining area are addicted to opium and approximately 30 per cent of gold miners use heroin and metamphetamines. It is not only the general atmosphere of desperation in the mining areas, but also the specific working conditions of gold mining that push some to use drugs." The use by addicts of shared needles and an explosion of prostitution around the new mines have also led to an upsurge of HIV and Aids, local people interviewed for the report claimed.

Colin Poole, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Programme, said: "The Hugawng Valley is a huge area and I am not aware of new large-scale gold mines coming up in the past two years since the tiger reserve was established."

But, the new report says, "gold mining is ... widespread and thriving in partnership with the SPDC's Ministry of Mines ... With SPDC officials from the top down profiting from gold mining, there is little political will to place serious curbs on the industry."

Jeremy Woodrum of the US Campaign for Burma claims the willingness of the regime to create tiger reserves was a cunning ploy. "The ruling regime has launched a full-frontal attack against ethnic minorities within their own borders. They'll do anything they can, including create large reserves, to seize control of land that historically belonged to a particular ethnic group."

Mr Poole commented: "We have not come across any direct evidence that the regime is using us for their own ends. Protecting the national resources of Burma is critically important. Hugawng Valley is one of the most important ecosystems left in south-east Asia. If we can have any role in helping to preserve it, that's a good thing."

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