Mine Naung, in Mohnyin district of Myanmar’s Kachin state, is home to hundreds of gold mines. Residents of the small village say they are at odds over the industry that can uncover vast wealth, but at a cost to the local environment and traditions.
Mine Naung is perched on the south side of Indaw Gyi Lake—which comprises one of the largest wetlands of an ASEAN Heritage Park. The Gaung Tone stream feeds the lake after crossing through the village on its way from its source in Hsin Gaung Mountain and an adjacent forest preserve. Gold mining camps, each of which measures around five acres (two hectares), run along the entire extent of the Gaung Tone stream.
Traveling the 165 kilometers (100 miles) by car from the Kachin state capital Myitkyina to Mohnyin takes more than five hours on the Myitkyina-Mandalay Union Highway. Along the way, one passes through the towns of Nanmati, Mogaung and Hopin, and encounters military encampments fenced in by sharpened bamboo poles, multiple political party billboards and rubber plantations, as well as workers repairing the road at various points. Mohnyin is close to Kachin state’s border with Sagaing region, and is home to members of the Shan, Kachin, and Bama ethnic groups.
To access the Mine Naung gold mines from the seat of Mohnyin district, one must traverse a winding road carved into the side of towering Indaw Gyi Mountain. The road in February 2016 had been extremely dangerous due to low visibility from dust clouds during the dry summer months and slippery with mud during the rainy season, but was recently paved.
In late February, local residents guided reporters from RFA’s Myanmar Service to the mining area where, only minutes from the entrance of Mine Naung village, excavation pits of around 150 feet (46 meters) in both width and length, and measuring some 200 feet (61 meters) deep could be seen. Huge piles of red earth and lakes of mud could be seen, as well as heavy machinery of various types.
During a second visit to the area later in February, officials from the organization that oversees gold mining in Mine Naung accompanied RFA. This time, there was no heavy equipment to be found.
Daw Kyun Mya, whose father founded Mine Naung village and who oversees local farming affairs, told RFA at that time that residents had long mined gold on a small scale in the area. Within the last five years, however, the miners began using heavy machinery to expand their operations, severely affecting the local environment and agricultural economy.
“Earlier, even though people were making a living from gold mining, it wasn't this bad,” she said. “Now, since they are working with backhoes and heavy machines … the work that would normally take 10 years can be done in half a year.”
Nearly one-fifth of Kachin state is being mined for gold on a large scale, bring widespread environmental damage and dramatically altering village life.Kyun Mya said the administrator of Mine Naung earns 500,000 kyat (U.S. $415) for each backhoe he licenses to work in the area and 700,000 kyat (U.S. $580) in monthly fees from operators, and therefore has no incentive to limit mining activities.
“Since this has happened, many things in the area have been ruined,” she said. “First, the farmland was destroyed and now the lakes have become shallow. But things are going to become a lot worse.”
According to Ko Saji, who heads the Myitkyina-based Kachin Development Network, nearly one-fifth of Kachin state is being mined for gold on a large scale, bring widespread environmental damage and dramatically altering village life.
“We found that 18 percent of Kachin state has become a gold mining area,” he told RFA. “[The industry] has seriously affected the natural environment. It is also a huge social problem. It has had an extremely negative effect.”
No Large Profits
Tu Ma, a local resident who has mined in Mine Naung for 15 years, said he had previously searched for gold by hand, but now rents backhoes to do the job.
He said that in addition to renting machinery and the plots he mines, he also has the wages and meals of his workers to provide, and that he is shouldering a heavy financial burden.
Male laborers earn 5,000 kyat (U.S. $4.15) per day, while female laborers get 3,000 kyat (U.S. $2.50).
“Each day, it costs me about 120,000 kyat (U.S. $100) just to hire people, and then there’s oil, rice and curry,” Tu Ma said. “So each day, it costs me about 200,000 kyat (U.S. $165).”
The success of gold speculators in Mine Naung is varied, with most able to earn back their initial investments without much profit. A few have struck it rich, while others have lost everything.
On a typical day, water is pumped into the mines to sift for gold from around 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., but the work of the laborers does not end when the machines go silent.On a typical day, water is pumped into the mines to sift for gold from around 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., but the work of the laborers does not end when the machines go silent.
Workers then collect long strings of coconut fibers to which are attached flakes of gold mined during the day, before female laborers sift them through wooden pans while sitting around a fire for warmth.
Tu Ma’s wife demonstrated the sifting process by scooping up mercury from a bottle and pouring it into a tray with gold ash, which she then rubbed together with her hands. The specks of gold adhered to the mercury and formed a ball, which was then heated in a steel cup. The heat caused the mercury to vaporize, leaving a small nugget of gold.
While heating the ball of mercury over the fire, she explains that she will only earn back her capital for the day.
She says that there have been times when she and her husband have found three to four ticals (50-65 grams) of gold during a day of work at their claim. Today, however, they have only one-fourth of a tical (four grams).
All she could do is hope for a better yield in the future as she and her fellow workers shut down operations after a strenuous day in the muddy pits of the mine.
By RFA's Myanmar Service and Josh Lipes