Upper Myanmar’s Chindwin River, a tributary to the great Ayeyarwady, is choking to death – on gold. As it flows through Sagaing Region’s Hkamti township, rich in natural treasures, it is fouled with red sludge and spoil, the ruins of former and active mines and diggings.
The villages of Hman Bin, Phaung Sai, Kaung Hmu, Kyar Hmaw and Padumone villages are scenes of industrial desolation. Both banks of the 800-kilometre (507-mile) tributary have been despoiled by unregulated mining.
In 2012, the Swan Yi Htet Myet gem mining company started excavations in Hman Bin village tract, leaving piles of waste soil and pits around the monastery, nearby farmland and even on the local primary school football field, residents told The Myanmar Times during a recent visit to the isolated region.
“They took advantage of our inexperience. They contributed nothing to the village’s development in education or health. They handed out rice, oil and salt and bribed landowners to let them excavate. Some villagers objected, but they had no official documents and received no compensation,” said a local teacher, who asked to be identified only as Ma Nang.
The company was working a region known not for gems but for gold. Environmentalist Ko Aung San Myint alleges it misused its permits in order to dig for the precious mineral.
The company could not be reached for comment, but Myanmar Gems Enterprise assistant director for Hkamti U Ohn Thwin said it had not given any permits in the Hman Bin area. “We didn’t know about the excavations,” he said.
When a gem mining company applies for a permit to the regional Department of Mining, a specialist interdepartmental committee surveys the plots proposed for excavation, he said.
According to the 1994 Myanmar Gems Law, diggings must be located at least 100 feet (30.5 metres) away from rivers, houses, religious buildings and schools.
But illegal mines are also a problem. This is particularly the case further upriver from Hkamti in the Tietee region, where a local government administrator, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said companies are able to work without permits due to protection from local ethnic armed groups.
“It is difficult for us to arrest them because of this protection,” he said.
In much of Hkamti, Layshee and Lahe townships, Naga and Kachin armed groups hold sway.
Rigs built to sieve gold dust, surrounded by tips of red soil, now straggle along the banks of the Chindwin in upper Hkamti town, as well as huge digging machines and water pumps. Red sludge fouls the river.
“Gold mining here is a small-scale enterprise. The miners have no permit. Most of the workers are from c. When authorities come to inspect, we hide our machines, and take them out again when the inspectors leave,” said Sai Kyaw, a 40-year-old Khamti resident who runs a small gold mining operation in the area.
But alongside the small fry, large mining operators come up from lower Myanmar, working alongside Shan and Chinese businessmen, he said.
A member of the Chindwin Youth Network, Ko Aung San Myint, confirmed that a number of larger companies are illegally operating gold mines in Tietee. The community organisation has submitted complaints to the regional government and hluttaw, as well as the Ministry of Mines. If no action is taken it plans to petition President U Thein Sein and the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw.
U Myat Maung, a representative for Hkamti in the Sagaing Region Hluttaw, said he raised the issue of illegal mining and environmental damage at the hluttaw in December. The regional mining ministry responded only that it would act “carefully” to ensure it does not happen again.
None of the companies could be reached for comment.
Waste water from mining works at Kyar Kite, Ma Lin, Min Sin, Kaung Hein and Nant Phi Lin villages in the lower Hkamti has decimated fisheries resources, residents say.
“The Chindwin is in danger of extinction if this goes on. The water is no longer fit to drink, or even to bathe in, these last eight years. Now residents have to dig wells,” said local author Chindwin Thar Mg Moe.
“Instead of the flying fish we used to see, there is just sludge, which could contain mercury. This has got worse under this government.”
He blamed corruption for the lack of response to the complaints filed by local residents.
U Htein Win, director of No 2 Ministry of Mining, conceded that while some mines were legal, others were operating without permission.
But he said enforcement of state regulations had improved since 2012.
“Since then, we began stopping gold mines from operating along the riverbank. Inspection teams were formed in the region and the townships to ensure companies follow the rules,” he said.
There was little evidence of inspection teams when The Myanmar Times visited, but the signs of riverside diggings were all-too-common. Large excavators could clearly be seen on the denuded banks, while barges carrying trucks and other equipment upriver were a common sight.
Aside from the pollution in the water, residents say the mining has contributed to increased siltation. This is particularly problematic in upper Sagaing Region, where the limited road and air access, and lack of rail lines means the river is a vital transport artery.
That status is now in doubt, however. Sagaing Region’s Department of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems says 37 points on the river are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate when water levels are low.
The Ministry for Transport says it has spent K1.633 billion between 2000 and 2013 improving the Chindwin waterway, but residents say this is just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed to repair the damage done by illegal mining.
Ko Kyaw Thet Win, of the Chindwin Youth Network, said the government must take action to stop illegal mining.
“They should address the reason for the narrowing of the river,” he said, “rather than just doing repairs.”
Source: Myanmar Times