Mining for Development Initiative
In 2012 Maurice Ostro OBE returned to Myanmar for the first time in 30 years with a UK Government delegation to look at opportunities to help with political and economic development. In conversations with the government and the opposition, a project began to take form to provide sustainable training, employment and development to the most economically disadvantaged people, particularly women.
Myanmar has a long history of gems and jewellery and it is estimated that up to half of its GDP comes from that industry. Very little of this wealth benefits the majority of its people and the focus of this initiative is to provide potentially tens of thousands of people, from all faiths, with skills and economic benefit while upholding high ethical standards.
The Fayre Share Foundation working in partnership with the Suu Foundation have three related goals; to set up an ethical, co-operative mine for the sourcing of semi-precious gemstones, to develop a local gemstone cutting and polishing industry, and to cultivate small scale jewellery manufacturing expertise.
Besides engaging with charitable organisations and social enterprises in developing this project, Ostro Minerals, the world leader in the semi-precious stone Blue Topaz, is supporting the project. In contrast to the high value precious gems, for which Myanmar is renowned, semi-precious gemstones are relatively inexpensive and so are well suited for this ground-breaking initiative.
A thriving cutting, polishing and jewellery making industry in Myanmar, requires a source of locally mined gemstones. The majority of gems are mined in the region of Mogok, and whilst most of the focus has been on the precious gemstones for which this region is famed, there is potential to mine semi-precious gems, such as Topaz.
This initiative plans to support the creation of a local mine, which will set an example for other mines in the region, and indeed for ethical mines world-wide. With the support of government and the local mining industry, the Fair Share Mine Company will be established as a co-operative mine for the benefit of all the community. Adhering to high ethical and industry standards, as set out by international bodies, the intention is that the Fair Share Mine will safeguard the environment, the workers and the local community as well as yield the gems to service the burgeoning cutting, polishing and jewellery making industry.
There is a demand for skilled gemstone cutters across this industry, and hitherto, this has been not been an area of expertise for the Burmese. This initiative aims to fill a need for experienced craftsmanship and provide a livelihood for many impoverished members of the community.
Training academies are already in progress, teaching the craft of cutting and polishing. The intention is that trainees will first learn to cut inexpensive stones, such as Topaz and then graduate to the more precious gemstones, for which Myanmar is famed. The eventual outcome of this will be to create income opportunities for tens of thousands of individuals in remote areas. This will be of particular value to women who have limited access to child care or are house bound to take care of ageing parents, since these acquired skills can be used from within the home.
Many of these graduates will need further support if they are to return to their homes and set up their own business. They may need access to equipment, electricity, water, and of course the gems themselves. All of this will require funding and plans are in place to help set up these necessary connections and secure micro-loans to those who require them.
Much of jewellery making in Myanmar can be done as a cottage industry from home, or from rural areas where there is extensive poverty. The challenge is the route to market, as these individuals have little to no opportunity for engaging with the outside world.
The Foundation, together with Ostro Minerals, which has extensive experience of working with and marketing Blue Topaz internationally, is in the process of creating a network to connect jewellery companies across the globe with local Burmese communities, and the graduate cutters and polishers. These connections can yield fruitful partnerships as local Burmese can assist with manufacturing for international brands or indeed export their own products, with marketing assistance.