The SVP letter rightly raises concerns over the recently highlighted issue of 'blood amber' from Myanmar in the context of “fossils in and from conflict zones” (Rayfield et al. 2020: p. 1), based on popular articles that appeared in the New Scientist (Lawton 2019), Science (Sokol 2019) and New York Times (Joel 2020) (Side note: ‘blood amber’ is originally the English translation of the Chinese word ‘xuepo’ for red amber, e.g. Unschuld and Zheng 2012: p. 1161. Later, it has been associated with the tragic events in Myanmar, for example, through the documentary “Blood Amber” by Yong Chao Lee from 2017). We are indeed very concerned with the tragedy in Myanmar. However, there are some misconceptions and confusion surrounding amber from Myanmar, which we believe are not accurately addressed by the SVP letter. We are also dismayed by the misrepresentation of some views (such as Peretti 2020).
In the SVP letter, it is stated that “Our understanding is that the Myanmar military has recently seized control of the mining operation, causing armed conflict and ethnic strife in the country where the ‘offensive killed and displaced thousands of people [forcing them to live in makeshift camps without aid] and has been condemned by the UN as a genocide and crime against humanity’” (Rayfield et al. 2020: p. 1). We are deeply concerned with the humanitarian situation in Myanmar and think that a response from the palaeontological community is clearly warranted. In this respect we very much agree with this sentiment expressed in the SVP letter. We have looked more deeply into this issue to understand the actual situation in Myanmar and what it means for palaeontological science.
The deeply disturbing United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC or HRC) report on The economic interests of the Myanmar military, published September 2019, states: “Since November 2017 the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Armed Forces; note from authors] and the KIA [Kachin Independence Army; note from authors] have engaged in armed conflict around the amber and gold mines near Noije Bum hill, south of Tanai town, resulting in civilian casualties. The Mission documented numerous accounts of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by the Tatmadaw in Tanai, Kachin State” (Human Rights Council 2019: p. 32/33). What is clear from the report is that amber is not the only gem to be affected, but also ruby and jade are (see Lin et al. 2019 for details on jade mining). Nevertheless, we cannot ignore and do condemn the human suffering perpetrated in Kachin State since 2017. At time of writing, Lin Lin Oo, Member of Parliament for Tanai, is seeking to relieve the local economy by general reopening of the amber mines closed over two years ago by the Tatmadaw (Kachin News Group 2020).
Here we must emphasize that Tanai in Kachin State is not the only source of Burmese amber. Amber is now also found in Tilin, Magway Region and Khamti, Sagaing Region, all of which are not conflict areas (see Zheng et al. 2018 for details on the age and geographic location of these mines). In these latter areas, the miners have governmental permits from the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, their amber is legally traded at the biannual Myanmar Gems Emporium and tax is paid to the government (anonymous official in Myanmar, pers. comm.; yet, this does not suggest that there is no legal amber trade from Kachin State). These legal and conflict-free ambers would therefore also be covered by an outright ban on all ambers from Myanmar.
The authors of the SVP letter further state, that “the recent surge of exciting scientific discoveries, particularly involving vertebrate fossils, has in part fuelled the commercial trading of amber. The rarest types of fossils are sought after for exceptionally high prices” (Rayfield et al. 2020: p. 1). This is probably true wherever fossils are traded, amber is not exempt or alone in this fossil trade. We have to acknowledge this across palaeontology. While it is true that the discoveries of vertebrate remains (e.g. Daza et al. 2016; Xing et al. 2016, 2018a, b) caught international attention for both scientists and traders, the vast majority of traded Burmese amber does not contain extraordinarily preserved vertebrate remains that could be (and are) sold for thousands of US dollars, but contains mostly smaller specimens that are usually sold for far less than 100 dollars and as popular amber jewellery. Vertebrates in this type of amber only account for 0.3% of described species whereas arthropods account for 93% (Ross 2020). The number of inclusions already in circulation prior to 2017 is estimated at >3 × 105 (Jarzembowski et al. 2016). Nevertheless, these smaller and cheaper specimens often contain very important scientific information, irrespective of their low commercial value. Many specimens with inclusions of scientific relevance end up in private collections, which potentially makes them no longer available to scientists (though not necessarily, see Haug et al. 2020a), so it is important for scientific institutions to acquire specimens for research or otherwise they may be lost for research indefinitely.
It appears a bit arbitrary to concentrate on events surrounding Myanmar amber in the SVP letter, because “[t]here are fossils from other areas of concern” (Rayfield et al. 2020: p. 1) as well. If the palaeontological community would wish to act against research on fossils from conflict zones, a considerable number of other areas would have to be included. Other ambers, e.g. Rovno amber from western Ukraine, are also associated with the violation of human rights, environmental destruction and illegal trade (Piechal 2017). Despite active studies performed on this deposit, these issues do not seem to attract the same amount of attention. Currently, Myanmar is in a way pilloried. The situation in Myanmar is complicated though the country is working towards peace (see Woods 2019) and according to the Global Peace Index 2019 published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (2019), Myanmar is now considered more peaceful than, for example, the USA. Generally, this also raises the question of who should assess suitable political and social circumstances of fossil (or extant) material for scientific study. Who decides which governments and nations should be boycotted today? What ethical standards should be applied? Such decisions should be broadly supported instead of unilaterally imposed, and perhaps the SVP should strive to develop an ethics code amongst its members to decide where the boundaries lie for palaeontological studies, regardless of political motivation, influence or agenda.