Grueling, dangerous and pays little
A thriving gold mining industry has decimated the environment in Mohnyin district in Myanmar’s Kachin state, while taking a heavy toll on the health and livelihoods of residents of Mine Naung village, who say authorities have done little to address the problem.
The number of mines in Mine Naung village has increased drastically in the six years since the gold hunt began.The number of mines in Mine Naung village has increased drastically in the six years since the gold hunt began, while farmland at the base of nearby Hsin Gaung Mountain shrinks each season, according to residents.
The Gaung Tone stream, which flows from the mountain through Mine Naung and had provided water for drinking and growing crops, now runs red and is full of silt, former village administrator Soe Myint told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
He said pumps used to search for gold in the mines have pilfered the stream and left wastewater full of heavy metals behind, forcing residents to seek alternative water sources.
“We have dug water taps, and in places that we couldn’t dig taps we dug four-foot (1.2-meter) ditches to reach water [sources] … but now we cannot get water because even they are dry,” he said. “We submitted applications to the [village] administration authorities, but they didn’t take any action. We didn’t know what to do, so we left it like that ... So now, that is the situation.”
As news of gold discovery traveled throughout the region, operators descended on Mine Naung and set up mines along the upper Gaung Tone stream and in areas previously used as farmland. Water wells near the mines consistently lose pressure and turn murky when the pumps are operated each day, residents said.
Mya May, who has lived in Mine Naung for nearly seven years, said that since the farmland surrounding her home was turned into gold mines, her well no longer produces and she is forced to travel outside the village to collect water each day. “We have to carry water from far away because our wells are empty,” she said.
Mya May and other farmers confronted mine owners over the water scarcity three years ago, but their concerns were dismissed.“We are thirsty for water and we’re having difficulties. We are farmers, so we need water, and we are [spending much of our time] carrying heavy loads of it [to do our work].”
The water from Mine Naung’s main well has turned brown, and villagers can use it only for bathing, washing clothes and washing dishes, they say. Each morning and evening, women and children can be seen carrying potable water home from wells outside the village.
A sample of the water from Mine Naung’s village well provided to a lab in Yangon’s Kamaryut township was declared unfit for drinking by chemical engineer Kyaw Nyein Aye, who said it contained excessive heavy metals.
Pumps used to search for gold in the mines have pilfered the stream and left wastewater full of heavy metals behind.“We found that the iron, manganese and cadmium contents were at the upper limits of the safe drinking level. That is to say … it was on the margin,” he said.
“From a scientific viewpoint, at the present margin we can say that this water is not safe to drink.”Villagers told RFA that mine operators are not disposing of mercury used to collect gold dust and wastewater—which contains heavy metals—in a responsible manner, and that they are contaminating the area’s water supply.
Residents who drink the water have suffered from a variety of ailments, according to Tun Wai, a doctor from Mohnyin who has run a clinic in nearby Nantmun village for more than 30 years.“What we mostly saw at first from drinking this unclean water were cases of stomachaches, abdominal pains, blood in urine and other urinary problems,” he said.
“Later, we saw a lot of cases of numbness, body aches, and fatigue caused by [excess] mercury [in the bloodstream], which has affected both the young and the old. Additionally we have seen cases of joint and ligament pain, as well as allergic reactions and swelling of the skin.”
Villagers said that the mines are also destroying the wider ecosystem, including that of Indaw Gyi Lake, which is fed by the Gaung Tone stream and comprises one of the largest wetlands of a 100-square-mile (260-square-kilometer) ASEAN Heritage Park.
One of the largest inland lakes in Southeast Asia, Indaw Gyi serves as a habitat for thousands of migratory birds and is home to nearly 100 different species.
Residents of Hepa, Hepu, and Le-pone-lay villages, which are located on the eastern shore of the Indaw Gyi, told RFA that red sludge from the mines along the Gaung Tone empties into the lake and has forced fish and other wildlife to relocate.
Aye Soe, a 20-year-old fisherman, said he is one of the few to still set nets for fish and shrimp each day on the eastern shore of Indaw Gyi.
“The mud from the gold mines rushes into the lake, so fishing is not very worthwhile,” he said.“In the past we would set up the nets, but now not so much. Not many [fish] go there because of the swamp-like mud.”
Red sludge from the mines along the Gaung Tone empties into the lake.The buildup of muck along the shore has forced fishermen to go farther out toward the center of the lake to find their catch, and many now spend nights on the water in pursuit of fish, which they sell to buyers who travel to them by boat early each morning.
Aye Lwin, the deputy chairman of Friends of the Lake, which works to protect Indaw Gyi and plant trees in the area, told RFA that the buildup of sludge in the last few years has created a swamp of around 300 acres (120 hectares) along the southern coast of the lake.
“If you look down you’ll find that it’s quite shallow—that is how muddy the swamp has become,” he said, while aboard a motorboat investigating the edge of the lake near Shwe Letpan village.
“There is mercury in the mud and sludge, as well as oil, so the water becomes polluted and the fish have left this side [of the lake] … Only if we go beyond Le-pone-lay and Hepa to the middle of the lake will we find a good number of fish.”
Addressing the problem
Residents of the Indaw Gyi area say they have written complaint letters to various government departments asking for the gold mines to be closed, but their concerns have yet to be addressed.
Myint Shwe, an expert with conservation organization Fauna and Flora International (FFI), called for better education to explain the benefits of protecting the local ecosystem.
“Gold mining [in the area] has become a means to earn a living, but this activity has produced mud and sludge which flow into the lake,” he said. “The mud and sludge are destroying the plants and trees that serve as food for the animal and fish species.”
Myint Shwe said local authorities have been in consultation with German experts to build a dam to prevent the sludge from flowing into the lake.
But he added that even if the government shuts down gold mining operations, it would still take as much as 10 years before any noticeable change took effect.
By RFA's Myanmar Service and Josh Lipes.