Saturday, 17 July 2021

Trouble in Myanmar: The worrying case of Burmese Amber.

Cretaceous ‘Burmese Amber’ has been extensively worked at several sites across northern Myanmar (though mostly in Kachin State) in the last 20 years. The amber is fairly clear, and often found in large chunks, providing an exceptional window into the Middle Cretaceous Insect fauna, as well as preserved examples of small Vertebrates, feathers from Birds and other Dinosaurs, and even the only known Ammonite preserved in amber. However, the trade in amber from Myanmar has raised deep concerns, as has the wider nature trade in gemstones from the country, due to the deteriorating Human rights situation in the country, and the highly exploitative working conditions at many mines there. Most noatably, in 2017 the Myanmar military seized direct control of the region, forcing many local residents (who were accused of being supporters of the Kachin Independence Army) to flee, and bringing in new workers from other parts of the country.

In April 2020 Emily Rayfield, Jessica Theodor, and David Polly of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology sent a letter to the editors of over 250 scientific journals, raising concern about the trade in amber from Myanmar, Human rights abuses within the country, the ongoing conflict situation in the region, and the blurring of the distinction between public and private collections that had occurred in some journals with regard to material from the region (in order for a study to be published in a journal, the material involved should be held in a collection that has a predetermined policy on the making of material available to other researchers, such as a museum or university collection, rather than in private ownership).

 
Flowers preserved in amber from Kachin State, Myanmar. Myanmar Amber Museum.

This was followed in May 2020 by an editorial published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology in which editors Paul Barrett and Zerina Johanson, stated that that journal would no longer be publishing articles based wholly or in part upon amber from Myanmar, whether newly collected or from historic collections, citing concerns about working conditions at mines in Myanmar, the use of money obtained from the sale of amber and other gemstones to by arms and fund conflicts in the region, and the widespread illegal removal of amber from the country.

The issue has been addressed again in the June 2021 issue of the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, with an editorial and a series of articles by scientists with views on the topic.

In the first of these papers, a group of scientists led by Chao Shi of the College of Marine Science and Biological Engineering at Qingdao University of Science and Technology and the Key Laboratory for Plant Diversity and Biogeography of East Asia at the Kunming Institute of Botany, argue that while the Human rights situation in Myanmar is now severe enough to justify a ban on the use of new specimens from the country in published scientific studies, a great deal of this material is already present in musuem and university collections around the world, and that it would be unreasonable to exclude this material from future studies.

 
A mining camp in a forest in Kachin State in 2010. Blood Amber/Kachin Development Networking Group.

In the second paper, Zin-Maung-Maung-Thein of the Department of Geology at the University of Mandalay, and Khin Zaw of the Centre of Ore Deposits and Earth Sciences at the University of Tasmania, raise concerns about Burmese Amber as a focus for 'parachute science', a term which refers to the practice of scientists from wealthy countries 'parachuting' into less well-off nations, collecting data or materials, then returning to their home nations to work on this material, without any benefit to the host nation, and often with scientists from that nation henceforth hampered from accessing the data or materials, due to their new location, and the high cost of accessing published information in many journals and other publications (ironically, this article is itself paywalled, and cannot be accessed without a subscription to Nature Ecology and Evolution, unless a fee is paid (US8.99 for the one-page article). In the case of Myanmar, amber is typically extracted then sold overseas, where it may be worked on by local scientists who are acting in good faith, but who in so doing are excluding scientists in Myanmar from accessing the same material. A study by Emma Dunne of the University of Birmingham and Nussaïbah Raja-Schoob of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and presented by Emma Dunne at a meeting of the Palaeontological Association in 2020, found that not a single publication on Burmese Amber in the English language published in the last 30 years included a local collaborator, whereas articles on Cainozoic Primates from Myanmar often did (suggesting that there is a local interest in palaeontology, and scientists in Myanmar who would be willing to work with with outside scientists). Dunne and Raja suggest that this difference may be because of the difference in status between amber and other fossils in Myanmar; in theory fossils are treated as antiquities in Myanmar, and a special permit is needed to export them, but amber is a 'gemstone' and may be exported without a permit (the export of gemstones, such as jade, rubies, and amber is a major earner of hard currencies for Myanmar). Zin-Maung-Maung-Thein and Khin Zaw suggest that scientists outside Myanmar wishing to work on this material should contact the government of Myanmar for permission, as well as museums and universities in the country to seek local collaborators.

In the final paper, Paul Barrett, Zerina Johanson and Sarah Long of the Natural History Museum again visit the dual legal nature of fossils in Burmese Amber, pointing out that the current situation is a 'legal quagmire' which researchers should contemplate very carefully before entering.

Finally, the editorial piece, having considered these issues, lays out the current policy for the publication of studies based upon material from Myanmar (or other troubled or contentious areas), across all Nature journals; to whit that the export of material must be in line with both local and international law, and that any material used in such studies should be deposited in a recognised museum, collection or accessible repository. 

 
The tip of the wing of a fledgeling Cretaceous Bird, trapped in Burmese Amber. Ming Bai/Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Whilst this editorial policy would seem to go some way towards addressing the problems of Burmese Amber, it by no means resolves all the issues raised within the articles. Notably, the number of publications featuring material from Burmese Amber has been rising sharply since 2010, and in particular since 2017, when the Myanmar military is reported to have taken over the amber-producing mines, and news of Human rights abuses associated with the mines began to emerge. Thus, one of the major concerns about Burmese Amber is behaviour of the ruling military junta, which is accused of both abusing the rights of miners, and of using money from the sale of amber to buy arms and fund conflicts against minority groups within Myanmar. This cannot be addressed by complying with Myanmar's export laws, since those laws are drawn up by, and serve the interests of, those accused of committing Human rights abuses. 

Neither can the problem of parachute science be resolved simply by making sure that specimens are in collections where they are (in theory) available to scientists from their home country. No matter how good the intentions of such countries, the cost of travelling to them in order to study material is often prohibitively expensive, particularly if more than one country needs to be visited to see scattered specimens. This is compounded by an increasing tendency by governments in Europe and North America to refuse to allow researchers from other parts of the world to enter their countries at all, something which plays well with sections of the western media that have taken to scapegoating immigrants at every opportunity, but which compounds the injustice of having material removed from countries to be studied in other parts of the world.

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