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 at the time, a project began to take form to provide sustainable training, employment and development for the most economically disadvantaged people. The focus is on women from both the Buddhist and Muslim communities who by working together, will foster positive interfaith engagement and social cohesion.
Myanmar has a long history of gems and jewellery and it is estimated that up to 30% 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 Ostro Fayre Share Foundation (OFSF) working in partnership with local NGO’s has 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.
A thriving cutting, polishing and jewellery making industry in Myanmar, requires a source of locally mined gemstones. The region of Mogok while famed for its rubies, has potential for mines of other less expensive and more plentiful gemstones such as spinel and 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, this Fair Share mine will be run 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 an area of expertise for the Burmese but generally for the more expensive gemstone such as rubies, sapphires and jade. By developing greater emphasis on cutting and polishing of lower cost but higher volume gemstones, this initiative aims to fill a need for experienced craftsmanship and provide a livelihood for many impoverished people.
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 is of particular value to women who have limited access to child care or are house-bound, caring for elderly parents, since these acquired skills can be used from within the home.
Many of those who have been trained 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 start-up funding and plans are in place to help set up these necessary connections and secure micro-loans to those who need 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, the world leader in the semi-precious stone Blue Topaz, has begun creating a network to connect jewellery companies across the globe with local Burmese artisans and the graduate cutters and polishers. These connections can yield opportunities for international brands to manufacture in Myanmar at competitive prices whilst improving peoples’ lives significantly.
This has already borne fruit in the creation of a new training and production facility in Mandalay where the first team of women are assembling jewelry for a Canadian retailer.