MAY 2017, MAI NAUNG, Kachin State — Every day, in a large clearing in the sub-tropical forests on the edge of Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, a team of men toil on a muddy wasteland in search of that most coveted of precious metals: gold.
In the forests around Indawgyi Lake, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, several thousand miners have created a muddy wasteland in a back-breaking search for gold.
Workers of varying ages and ethnicities came to this remote site from all over the country to earn a living for their poor families. The small, family run gold mine here covers several hectares and is owned by an ethnic Kachin widow named Daw Bauk Ja and her daughter Bauk Mai.
It is one of only two mines owned by local Kachin people among the hundreds of small-scale mines that have sprung up in recent years in the forests and mountains west of Indawgyi Lake, an area located near a sleepy town called Mai Naung.
Though it offers a relatively good cash income by Myanmar’s rural standards, the work takes a heavy toll on the miners’ bodies, while the run-off from the unlicensed mining pollutes nearby streams and the ecosystem of the lake.
Indawgyi is Myanmar’s largest lake, with a total surface area of 133,715 hectare, and was recently listed by UNESCO
as a Man and Biosphere Reserve for its natural beauty and unique ecosystem. It supports a variety of plants and animals - especially migrating bird species, some of which are threatened with extinction - while it is also an important source of food and other natural resources for local communities.
Daw Bauk Ja’s mine produces about 16 grams of gold on a good day, which is worth about $600 locally, according to chief miner Win Oo, who added that a large share of this revenue is spent on fuel, equipment and labour costs.
The miners at Daw Bauk Ja’s site earn about $4 per day, along with free meals. All their work is manual and grueling. One man holds a hose to blast water at a muddy, rocky surface in order to dislodge chunks of soil, and as these slide down three others loosen it with picks and throw away any rocks.
The resulting sludge is channeled down a sluice box where heavier particles, including gold flakes, separate from the sand and dirt. The collected sediment is then panned by hand by the women, including Daw Bauk Ja and her daughter, who filter out the gold flakes, which are then lumped together by adding mercury for amalgamation and heating it with a torch.
Like at so many unregulated gold mining sites in Myanmar, much of the mercury is simply washed away and ends up polluting local water sources. According to a Unesco submission for Indawgyi’s Man and Bio Reserve listing, “Elevated mercury levels and increased sedimentation in the lake have been documented.” Mercury pollution can impact the environment, for example when fish - especially predator fish - build up a concentration of mercury in their bodies.