Some 3,000 farmers in northeastern Myanmar’s Shan state gathered Friday to protest against commercial mining operations they say have permanently damaged local waterways and farmland, destroying their livelihoods.
Protesters in Namhkam township near the border with China said that waste from the Ngwe Kabar Kyaw company’s large-scale silica mining projects over the past two years have contaminated a nearby stream and ruined some 100 acres (40 hectares) of land used to grow crops.
“About 3,000 farmers took part in the protest, during which we marched along the stream and some leaders gave speeches,” a protester named Sai Kwam Khay told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“Waste soil and sediment from the project has blocked the stream and damaged farmland alongside the stream. We can’t even tell whether we are standing in the street, the stream, or on our farmland because the waste soil is covering everything. That’s why we are protesting today.”
Sai Kwam Khay said that in addition to contaminating the stream, in some areas the waste had built up and affected water flows, resulting in a drought.
He said around 100 acres of land that had been planted with corn or rice were destroyed as a result of the waste in 2013 and another 100 acres had been spoiled this year.
The protesters from 10 area villages gathered early Friday at the Nam Seere bridge and marched along the stream to downtown Namkham, shouting slogans. Organizers had obtained permission from local authorities for around 300 protesters to demonstrate, but the crowd quickly swelled to thousands.
According to Sai Kwam Khay, the protesters had four demands for authorities.
“We demanded a stop to all mining companies in Namhkam township. We also demanded compensation for the farmland we lost, repair of the stream, and restoration of the damaged land so that we can farm again,” he said.
“The township administrator and his assistants called and discussed the issue with us. They said they would accept our four demands, but there was no one from the mining company involved in today’s discussion with the authorities.”
Sai Kwam Khay said that Ngwe Kabar Kyaw had been dumping waste soil and sediment by the bank of the stream for years, leading to its contamination.
“When it rains, these soils and sediments flow into the stream and onto the farmland as well—then the stream runs for about six miles (10 kilometers) before it flows into the Shewle River,” he said.
“We can’t plant unless we remove all the waste soil from the farmland.”
According to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), six companies had entered the Namhkam area and began extracting silica in 2013, adding that local residents had consistently opposed the projects because of early signs of pollution.
DVB said the villages of Ho Na, Kaung Paing, Mann Kham, Mann Naung, Pan Hto Lein, Se Hai, and Waik Ho Sai have been affected so far.
It said the villagers were receiving support from two of Shan state’s leading political parties—the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP).
No action has been taken by authorities despite repeated pleas by area farmers, the report said.
Silica mining is common in Myanmar—typically in the form of large stone extraction, which sometimes employs chemicals that can lead to severe health problems like silicosis.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.