Mining machinery sales in Myanmar may be aggravating human rights abuses

REPORT | 10 June 2020

Major mining machinery suppliers still appear to lack adequate safeguards in their sales, two years after Swedwatch highlighted alarming environmental and human rights impacts of irresponsible jade mining in Myanmar. In a new report, Swedwatch calls again on Caterpillar Inc., Komatsu Ltd and Volvo Construction Equipment to comply with international human rights standards for doing business in high-risk areas. 

Kachin state in northern Myanmar is home to what has been termed “the world’s longest running civil war”. It also produces 90 percent of the world’s jade gemstones, an industry worth billions of dollars, enriching both the Myanmar military and their opponents the Kachin Independence Army.

Since the early 2000s, an influx of heavy mining machinery has accelerated jade extraction. Irresponsible mining practices have led to serious human rights impacts including deadly landslides and loss of land and livelihoods. The jade industry is believed to worsen acute social issues in the region, including heroin addiction and commercial sexual exploitation. More than ten thousand mining machines were used in the jade mines in 2016, many produced by global leaders Caterpillar, Komatsu and Volvo CE.

The report Still Overlooked – Communities affected by jade mining operations in Myanmar, and the responsibilities of companies providing machinery, compiled with the support of Act Church of Sweden, revisits the 2018 investigation. Community members explained that the human rights situation had deteriorated further around Hpakant Township, the worst affected area. According to media reporting, at least 210 have died in landslides in the mines since mid-2018.

Although the situation in Kachin has been well-documented for years, the three companies were unable to show in 2018 that they had conducted human rights due diligence, a core concept of international responsible business standards. When contacted by Swedwatch for this follow up report, only Volvo CE had taken initial steps to initiate something similar to such a process in Myanmar.

This is contrary to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – the UNGPs – which state that businesses must try to prevent or mitigate the adverse human rights impacts linked to their products – even when the impacts are caused by a customer.

“High-risk” circumstances highest priority

It can be argued that the companies’ level of responsibility in the human rights impacts has shifted over time due to their failure to act, particularly as they have been notified about the contexts in which their products have been used. At least two of the companies – Caterpillar and Komatsu – may by now, according to the logic of the UNGPs, be considered to be “contributing to” some of the ongoing human rights abuses. Depending on whether Volvo CE’s recent initiative leads to concrete action, this may also be applicable to Volvo CE.

The global mining machinery companies’ seemingly blatant lack of safeguards in response to his context is a matter of serious urgency and should be made a priority by Caterpillar, Komatsu and Volvo CE, and by all companies selling mining equipment in Myanmar.

Unless Caterpillar and Komatsu can show that they have taken action to assess the impacts of their  products, they should, in line with their responsibilities under the UNGPs, assess how to contribute to remediating the negative impacts of the use of their equipment in the jade mines. They are expected to act immediately to ensure they do not exacerbate the situation. Depending on the quality of its due diligence efforts, the same may also apply to Volvo CE.

The UNGPs also state that circumstances deemed “high risk” from a human rights perspective should be the highest priority for company action. When selling mining machinery, themselves high-risk products, on high-risk markets, such as Myanmar, companies should make it a priority to ensure that sales processes take into account the risk that their products may be used in ways that cause adverse impacts.

Swedwatch and Act Church of Sweden therefore call on machinery providers to urgently conduct heightened human rights due diligence on their sales to Myanmar’s jade mining industry and to transparently act on the results. They also call on states to adopt legislation on mandatory human rights due diligence. Failing to do so will result in continued loss of life, human misery and destruction of the environment.

Photo credits: Zaw Moe Htet