Gold mining threatens the health and livelihoods of communities in the Myitsone Region in Myanmar

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The Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar is rich in biodiversity, home to more than 1,400 mammal, bird, and reptile species. The river is critical for the navigation and transport of people and goods, provides fresh water, especially to the dry zone of the central region, and its innumerable streams and wetlands that enter the Ayeyarwady delta supports most of the rice produced in Myanmar. Myitsone is at the confluence of the Ayeyarwady, and the word (in the Kachin language) means the land meeting with the two rivers: Mali Hka and Nmai Hka.

Before the coup on 1 February 2021, officials from the Myanmar government permitted 223 and 262 small-scale mines for gold and other minerals in 11 townships near Myitsone. But the government also limited the extraction to 300 feet from the waterways due to concerns about pollution. But after the coup, and without a democratic government and official oversight, large-scale mining operations have rapidly expanded in the area, often lacking any official permission.

The mining sites now extend across all riverbank areas, extracting soil for gold and dumping the wastewater back in the water. Most miners use mercury and cyanide, known as cyanide leaching, to separate the gold from the soil. The unruly mining operations threaten the health and livelihoods of the local communities in the area.

“My whole household was poisoned after eating fish from the confluence and fell sick for two days,” said a villager (identity withheld for safety purposes) from Tangphre village in the Myitsone area.

Mercury is widely used in gold mining across Kachin State, as it is relatively inexpensive. Even though Mercury is toxic, most local mine workers handle it with bare hands without any safety measures. Continued exposure to mercury can damage the brain, nervous system, eyes, lungs, and reproductive organs.

My visit to Myitsone

I visited Myitsone in 2022 and came across the heartbreaking scene of large-scale mining operations extending across both sides of the riverbanks. The digging and waste had formed mounds and valleys of waste, often blocking and diverting smaller streams. I saw many instances of the wastewater going into the river.

I still remember the words of a woman farmer residing in Hkang Bu village: “Our village had easy access to drinking water because we lived near the confluence. But once the gold mining sites started extraction, we ran short of water to drink and use in our families. We cannot drink the water from the confluence anymore.”

Many locals believe that the most significant gold mining operations are by the Jadeland Company, owned by one of Kachin State’s influential businesspersons, Yu Kawng.

The Jadeland Company’s mining activities have resulted in severe environmental problems.

A local villager from Tang Hpre said, “Many villagers here have been forced to sell their lands under pressure. I also had to sell my farm since all the lands around my farm were being bought up. the company has many security people around the mining sites; once, I was beaten up by some of the staff because I was reluctant to see my farm.”

Protests and promises of restoration

With local protests escalating against the mining operations and the loss of lands and drinking water sources, Yu Kawng has assured that he will help recover the land from the mining waste.

Zon Ta, an environmental scholar from the Pestalozzi Foundation, said that: “Not all the miners are successful with the mining in terms of making a profit from their operations. This means they lose money while also destroying the environment.”

“The devastation of our river and resources makes me sad; none of the Kachin Salang (a respected elder, in the Kachin language) and authorities are taking any serious action,” said Daw La, who has been raising concerns against another project, the hydropower dam in Myitsone. Myitsone is a site that is considered precious for the culture and heritage of the Kachin people in Myanmar.

Even though I have seen a lot of ecological damage, one day, I hope that we can stop the mining operations and recover the natural beauty of the area.

*** The names of interviewees for this article are withheld and have been changed for safety reasons.***


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