Without compensation and under restrictions
In contrast with the dangerous above ground private operations in Htankai, the nearby government-run Mann oilfield is a quiet affair. Dozens of old-fashioned rigs silently bob up and down as they pump crude from deep below, while farm workers tend to crops in the surrounding fields. Yet this calm belies the fact that local communities here also suffer from oil drilling operations.
One of MOGE's most productive fields in Myanmar, the Mann oilfield stretches up the Irrawaddy River from the town of Minbu, about 40 miles north of Htankai. When oil was discovered in the area in 1969, 13 villages and the surrounding farmland were absorbed into the Mann oilfield. Since then, an estimated 669 wells have been drilled and more than 120 million barrels of oil have been produced by MOGE and MPRL, a private company that was contracted to operate the site.
Driving north of Minbu I pass the three main entrances to the Mann oilfield property, which also serves as a point of access to villages and farms beyond. Each has an MPRL security guard and local police officer stationed below an array of signs declaring “No Entry” and “Restricted Area.” I eventually enter the property on motorbike on a detour via a dirt track.
There's no obvious pollution or oppressive hum of generators here. Were it not for the signs at every turn informing me that I'm in a heavily controlled area I would have not realized that these ten square miles of farmland are subject to one of the country's highest levels of civil restriction: the Criminal Procedure Code's Article 144.
In the area I meet with Soe Win who lives in Meh Beh Kone Village, which is situated in the first area to be developed when MOGE began operations. It is now the most heavily drilled village of the 13 within the Mann oilfield perimeter.
The entire area, Soe Win explains, has been classified under Article 144, a designation most commonly used to prevent civilians entering sensitive military or government sites or conflict areas. In civilian zones the law is used to enforce curfews, prevent assemblies, and exert control during civil unrest.
Soe Win said these restrictions are not tightly enforced in Meh Beh Kone, except for a designation that bars citizens from carrying out construction — even within the boundaries of their own personal property. But Article 144 is also of concern for local villagers as they seek compensation from MOGE and MPRL for land seizures and the negative effects of drilling on their livelihoods.
Soe Win explains that new wells disturb the surrounding farmland for months and can pollute it for years. Above-ground pipes linked to hundreds of wells crisscross the landscape , disrupting ploughing and planting. Despite having six wells on his farmland Soe Win says he has never received any financial or other benefits from oil extraction. Not a single landowner, he said, received compensation for the first 668 oil wells drilled here.
In recent years, local civil society organizations have supported retroactive compensation claims by residents. However, demonstrating land ownership in order to make legal claims is difficult under Myanmar's bureaucratic, confusing ownership registration process, while laws state that all land, ultimately, belongs to the government.
In perhaps a sign of changing times, a villager recently received a reported payment of US$3,100 to compensate for the sinking of well 669.
A need for reform
Both Magwe oil fields provide starkly different, but equally troubling, illustrations of the need to improve social and environmental impact standards of Myanmar's onshore oil industry.
In Htankai, landowners, operators and workers have a chance to profit from lucrative crude oil production but dangerous conditions and unmitigated pollution overshadow these opportunities. The Mann field has comparatively little environmental impact but residents cannot gain any benefits of oil extraction on their land and are not consulted over its impact.
As I depart Magwe, I can't shake the feeling that a happier medium between these two projects must be possible as Myanmar goes forward with reforming its resource sector.