Myanmar: palaeontologists must stop buying conflict amber

University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

Search for this author in:

The conflict in Myanmar, which has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians, is being bolstered by science. Since 2017, the military has had control of certain mining operations, and has been funding its war complex from the international trade in jade, rubies and amber ( Buyers of amber include professional and amateur palaeontologists, looking for glimpses of 99-million-year-old specimens from the mid-Cretaceous period entombed inside (J. Sokol Science 364, 722–729; 2019).

In April, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, based in McLean, Virginia, called on journal editors to boycott submissions relating to amber specimens acquired from Myanmar after June 2017 (; Springer Nature is not taking part in this boycott). Some prominent journals have gone further, announcing a moratorium on all research on amber from the nation, regardless of when it was collected (P. M. Barrett and Z. Johanson J. Syst. Palaeontol.; 2020).

A pre-2017 ban would effectively end research programmes based on holdings dating back more than a century, including any future efforts by scholars from Myanmar to study their own palaeontological heritage. I work on such fossil arthropods from museum collections and material donated before the conflict.

A pre-2017 Myanmar moratorium would also be hypocritical: what of collections taken from countries such as Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia during nineteenth-century colonial plunder, still studied today? In my view, researchers must stop acquiring amber from Myanmar until the conflict is resolved. Meanwhile, a practical compromise is for legitimate research on collections built before 2017 to continue.

Most importantly, palaeontologists working outside the nation should help to establish a local scientific community in Myanmar by training and collaborating with the country’s scholars, building ties for the peaceful study of their national treasures.

Nature 584, 525 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02432-z

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.