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On Burmese Amber and Fossil Repositories: SVP Members' Cooperation Requested!

April 21, 2020
Dear Fellow SVP Members:

Vertebrate paleontology as a field of science depends upon the ethical acquisition and long-term availability of fossil specimens. These fundamentals are written into SVP’s bylaws and code of ethics. Nonetheless, our profession also exists within a broader community, where new ethical situations arise in the face of global events.

One area of growing concern centers on the Cretaceous amber mines of northern Myanmar. The amber from Kachin State (so-called Burmese amber) has been used in jewelry for centuries, and a number of exquisitely preserved vertebrate fossils have been published recently. Although these finds have advanced scientific knowledge, they come with a human cost. The region has been in the throes of a civil war for decades, and the area containing the amber mines is currently controlled by Myanmar’s military. In fact, money from the sale of amber (including pieces that contain fossils) may be funding the conflict (Sokol, 2019, Troubled Treasure, Science). It is also alleged that inequitable labor practices are being used to collect the amber under exceptionally dangerous working conditions, the material is collected with little geological context, and is often smuggled out of the country to avoid import taxes and Myanmar’s restrictive export laws. Although the fossils undoubtedly have immense scientific value, they lie under an ethical cloud.

In response to this situation, the SVP Executive Committee has sent a letter expressing our concern to editors from over 300 scientific journals worldwide. Within this letter, we have also requested editors to review and update their policies around fossil specimen deposition, in accordance with the principles of future verifiability that underpin the statement in SVP’s Code of Ethics.

We ask that all SVP members assist in this effort. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology strongly discourages its members from working on amber collected in or exported from Myanmar since June 2017, until the situation changes. We recognize that there are other paleontologically productive areas with their own concerns, but the issues in Myanmar are particularly pressing. Furthermore, members on editorial boards can help craft updated journal ethics policies, and individual peer reviewers and authors can help by double-checking that any fossils proposed for publication are held within the public trust.

The practice of science has a human dimension—and sometimes very real human costs. It is our responsibility as vertebrate paleontologists and global citizens to ensure that our actions are both scientifically and ethically solid. Indeed, we firmly believe that ethical science is the best science. Thank you for your assistance in these efforts.

Any comments or queries should be directed to svp@vertpaleo.org.

Sincerely yours,
SVP Executive Committee
SVP Government Affairs Committee