• Kachin

Near Myanmar’s UNESCO-Listed Lake,

a Gold Rush Fuels Pollution and Deforestation

Images by
Minzayar Oo
Text by
Minzayar Oo and Paul Vrieze
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.
Minzayar Oo/NRGI
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.

Minzayar Oo/NRGI
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.
Minzayar Oo/NRGI
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.

Minzayar Oo/NRGI
Minzayar Oo/NRGI
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.

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A lucrative businessThe tiny gold nuggets collected by the mine owners near the lake are taken to gold traders’ shops in Mai Naung. The traders pay them in cash, fuel or equipment, and transport the gold down to the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, or to Mandalay.

On a recent visit to the area, the daughter of the mine owner, Bauk Mai, said she earned around $230 from the gold collected during the previous three days.

Minzayar Oo/NRGI
Back-breaking workThe daily heavy work gives the miners much physical pain and - like in so many places in northern Myanmar - some of the men resort to the abundantly available drugs for relief or energy. Win Oo says he often goes to a nearby heroin shooting gallery to ease his body aches, though he insists he only smokes heroin and refrains from injecting the drug.

Myanmar’s infamous Hpakant jade mines are located several hours away. There, tens of thousands of itinerant miners - a large percentage of whom are drug addicted and HIV infected - perform the dangerous work of picking through mining waste in search of one large jade stone that will lift their fortunes.

Minzayar Oo/NRGI
“There is no dream of a shortcut to wealth here, but at least it is more peaceful and quiet,” says Naw Naw, a 27-year-old Kachin miner working in Daw Bauk Ja’s mine, who like many workers here has also worked Hpakant.
Minzayar Oo/NRGI
Yet, Mai Naung area is not safe either. Apart from the major social problem posed by drug abuse, the region is categorized as a “brown zone” by the military due to the weak rule of law and ongoing conflict with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebels. Many local villagers and townspeople from Mai Naung avoid the forests where the miners work.

The KIA maintains a presence in the mountains surrounding Indawgyi Lake and, like at the jade mines, the ethnic rebels levy an unofficial “tax” the gold miners said, while the army reportedly also demands payments.

The long-term future for gold miners here remains uncertain as the National League for Democracy (NLD) government that took office last year has announced it intends to close down the many unlicensed mining sites found across rural Myanmar. Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Ohn Win reportedly told Parliament early this year that the mining near Indawgyi Lake was illegal and would be ended if security improves.

“Depending on how much security the [Kachin] state government could provide for our ground inspection, we will coordinate with regional administration to take action against illegal gold mining,” he told lawmakers. So far, however, the mines have remained open.

The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.