Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gold miners head for the hills

by Maxwell Smith
20 November 2008

Magway (Mizzima) – One decade ago the hills near the town of Yamethin in Mandalay Division were free from human settlements. There were no huts, no satellite televisions, often no human beings; only brush-covered terrain and the local flora and fauna.

But that all changed eight years ago when villagers discovered gold in the foothills 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of the town.

Now, this area, 500 kilometers north of Rangoon, is a hive of activity, with miners coming from all over Burma to dig for the precious yellow metal with single-minded enthusiasm. And many of them do not like outsiders scrutinizing their activities.

"Last month a group of gold diggers attacked a visitor who snapped some photographs," said Tun Kyaw, 34, himself a gold miner.

"They don't like people shooting photographs or video about what they are doing. They don't care who they are. What they care about is the gold," he said.

Tun Kyaw, who comes from Theikbeikkyinn Township, where the mines are located, said his once quiet native area is now famous throughout the country for its gold.

"You can see there are now thousands of people living here hunting for gold. The area is famous. They say nine out of ten people who come here can find gold," he said.

Local estimates put the number of miners at more than 100,000, many of them living in the collection of 800 or so huts that have been erected along the banks of several creeks that wind through the area.

The thousands of workers fulfill a number of different duties, with some digging 24-meter tunnels into the hillsides with the help of manual mining equipment, while others carry or crack stones.

"I moved here from Shan State to work as a carrier. I carry bags of gold nuggets for three miles and earn 5,000 kyat (US$ 4) for one small bag," said 20-year old Maung Lay.

Still others, like Moe Thwe from Shan State, work panning for gold in area creeks.

"We work by commission and get one-third the value of the gold we find. So we can earn more than 100,000 kyat (US$ 80) a month," she said.

More than 60 gold companies work in the area, each of them allotted 20 acres of land. Most of the 3,000 or so workers employed by each company are paid according to the one-third commission scheme.

According to mining experts, each company can expect to extract at least five to ten viss (one viss equals 3.6 lb) of gold from each mine.

Since 2004, numerous companies have commenced work in the area. "Many companies wanted to dig at the old block. Some of them gave five million kyat (US$ 4,000) to the guards to dig at the block for one hour. It's risky but the return is double," said Myo Win, a 29-year old who used to work for a foreign mining company.

But others say the practice is not quite so lucrative, including Myo Thein from Singu Township in Mandalay Division, who said he has lost 30 million kyat (US$ 24,000) searching for gold in prohibited areas.

"Our group found such a small amount of gold we were unable to make back our investment," he said.

"There are still a lot of gold hunters working near the Ivanhoe blocks, gnawing like rats to try to get to the gold veins that foreign experts working for Ivanhoe had identified," he said.

Aside from panning, many miners in the area still use cyanide extraction techniques despite the fact that the method has been banned by the government because of its negative impact on human health and the environment, especially water resources.

Many companies have built 9-square-foot ponds using tarpaulin sheets in which the powder of gold-bearing stones, lime, water and cyanide are mixed and soaked for a week. The gold is then absorbed by carbon cylinders as the mixture passes through pipelines, while the cyanide and other toxic by-products are leeched into the ground.

"If we use the simplest process of panning for gold we cannot make a profit. So we use the cyanide process like everyone else," said Aung Kyaw, a worker whose company recently discovered five viss of gold.

"It is dangerous for people because the cyanide can make them sick and damage the environment. That's why the government has banned the method, but miners still use it," said 29-year old gold hunter Han Kyaw.

Moe Moe, 30, who runs a food shop near a creek that flows from the mining area, said no one dares to drink from local wells because of the presence of cyanide and other toxins.

"Even the people who work in the mines do like we do – they drink bottled water," she said.

But some miners apparently did not get the message. Moe Moe said that just a couple months ago a number of miners suffered from cholera after drinking contaminated water and a team of doctors and nurses had to be brought from town to the mine to treat the victims.

Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the leeching ponds are located near creeks that flow into Kyee Ni Lake in Yamethin Township or into the Paung Laung River. Villagers who live near the creeks, including children, use the water for washing and bathing on a daily basis.

"We use it for bathing because it is the main source of water, but we don't drink it," said Ma Mya from the village of Kindar, about six kilometers (4 miles) away from the mining area.

Aung Kyaw said cyanide wasn't the only danger that miners had to contend with.

"There are also lots of robberies in the area. We all carry knives to protect our gold and our lives," he said.

In an effort to deal with this Wild West atmosphere, the government has appointed about 60 staff – half of them police officers and the other half from the Ministry of Mining – to maintain law and order in the area.

"We often educate the miners not to commit crimes and not to use cyanide for mining," said a high-ranking police officer in Mandalay Division on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

"We also have three checkpoints where we inspect people coming into the township because we don't know who they are, where they are from or whether they are trying to smuggle cyanide into the area," he said.

He said the police used to keep those who used cyanide or other illegal mining techniques in custody for 15 days.

"It didn't work because the people we caught just viewed the punishment as a 15-day vacation for their relaxation," he said.

"In September we changed the punishment to seven years in prison. However, we're still making nearly 100 arrests a month because every day more migrants move into the area and keep breaking the law," the police officer said.

He said they have even arrested people who have impersonated military officers by donning uniforms and carrying toy guns.

"They pretend they have the authority to stop people and inspect their goods on their way to the gold mine. When they have confiscated enough goods they take them away to resell them," he said.

"We are also trying to curb the increase of migration into the area by turning away people who are coming to work in the mines," he added.

However, many locals said that Yamethin Township has benefited from the influx of mine workers, which has fuelled a business spurt that has seen the opening of new restaurants, teashops and beer pubs, as well as the development of the transportation and telecommunication sectors.

Locals also said rental prices have increased fivefold since 2000 as demand for housing has skyrocketed.

"Many residents are now making money by renting out rooms and houses to newcomers," said Daw Khin, who rents her house out for 60,000 kyat (US$ 48) a month.

People who own vehicles have also benefited said driver Ko Tun, who uses his small tractor to carry workers up to the mining village.

"Every day I drive more than 20 workers to the mining area. There are a lot of people aside from me making money this way," he said, adding that the fare was 15,000 kyat (US$ 12) each way.

"It costs so much because the road to the mine is in such terrible shape," he explained.

In a country where many estimates place per capita income at less than 200 dollars per year, the prospect of gold in the hills around Yamethin Township has turned this isolated pocket of Burma into a surrealistic bonanza town.

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