NATOGYI, Burma—It has all the makings of an Old West mining camp: a landscape pocked with holes big and small, miners digging from dawn to dusk, piles of empty beer bottles, and playing cards scattered across the landscape.
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Burma is renowned for the abundance of its natural resources: natural gas along its coastline; timber in the northeast; jade, rubies, and sapphires in the central and northern parts of the country.
And there’s a reason why Burma is called the Golden Land: there is gold everywhere, underground and in the nation’s waterways. An estimated 53 tons of it form the stupa of the great Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.
Now there’s another treasure to add to the list: petrified wood.
Across wide swaths of central Burma, in the plains west of Mandalay, there’s a rush to dig up and sell petrified wood, especially to China, where it is said to bring luck.
“We can make U.S. $100 on a good small piece,” a miner told me, “and up to U.S. $1,000 on a big one. Pieces that are a dark color inside bring the best prices.”
The big pieces, some the size of a small log up to seven feet long, are polished and sold for as much as U.S. $5,000 in a roadside shop here in Natogyi. Plate-sized polished chunks go for U.S. $30 and bracelets for U.S. $10.
Buyers from China
“People come all the way from China,” the shop owner told me. “They are my best customers.”
Burmese Buddhists, too, are hoarding pieces of petrified wood because they believe some of it is from the sala tree and is therefore sacred. According to Buddhist belief, Buddha died under a sala tree.
It is a mark of Burma’s move toward openness that the miners were willing to let me visit, photograph the mines, and talk to them. Still, they did not want their names used.
They said mining petrified wood has transformed the economy of nearby villages.
“We can make more money with this than we can with farming,” a miner told me. "Our whole village is better off. Most families have a motorbike now.”
The mining of petrified wood started quietly about 10 years ago, they said, with a black market pipeline to China, 200 miles (320 kilometers) away. Now it is out in the open but getting little attention from journalists or environmentalists.
To find the wood, individual teams of miners dig a rectangular hole about three feet by four feet and go straight down, sometimes as deep as 100 feet (30 meters), looking for their prize.
When they find and sell a piece, the team members split the profits.
Larger mining companies have dug huge pits and use pressurized water to blast away dirt in their search for the bigger logs. They use suction pipes to lift the waste water into storage ponds for future use.
Village women haul waste dirt away from the big pits in baskets on their heads. They told me they make U.S. $6 a day, twice what they would earn doing road construction for the government.
There is little regard for safety or the environment. None of the abandoned holes is filled in, much less covered.
The waste dirt is piled in random heaps, and the miners don’t like to talk about the injuries, the drinking or the gambling.
Lurking nearby are the middlemen, brokers who buy the petrified wood here and then sell it at a markup to processors as far away as China.
I met one of the brokers at his home in Phalankone village. His yard was strewn with pieces of petrified wood, some of them wrapped and ready to be trucked to Shweli, on the border with China, where he has a second home.
His car, a new Honda, symbolizes his elevated status in the village.
Before him on a table were two pieces of petrified wood the size of small suitcases, with thick blue veins running through them. He wouldn’t tell me how much he paid for them.
“These two pieces are worth at least U.S. $10,000 in China,” he said. “They have craftsmen who can cut these pieces and carve them into very expensive sculptures.”
“Someday, I hope we can do that work here. It will be better for our people.”
Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to RFA.