Illegal gold mine operations have run unchecked in the capital of Myanmar’s Kachin state since the military seized power 10 months ago, raising concerns for villagers who spent years protesting a massive Chinese-backed dam project in the early 2000s.
Local sources along the Irrawaddy River in Kachin recently told RFA’s Myanmar Service that illegal gold mining operations began in earnest only weeks after the military’s Feb. 1 coup. They said they fear the unregulated activities could damage the waterway and the surrounding environment.
A resident who gave her name as Laura said that a gold mining operation in Myitsone is situated at a riverbend where the current is extremely strong. She said the mining impacts the integrity of the banks and could lead the river to change course during the rainy season, flooding nearby Tanphare village.
“Gold mining with the use of all this heavy machinery shouldn’t be done here. If they continue to mine like this, our Myitsone scenery will be lost forever,” she said.
“Tanphare village may also have flooding issues. I’m very much worried that we would lose all of our beautiful natural environment.”
Gold miners are dredging the Irrawaddy to collect the mineral from the riverbed, dumping the silt and wastewater back into the waterway and causing serious pollution, sources said.
Illegal gold mines have operated along the Irrawaddy in previous years, but few have made as large an impact as those launched in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 military coup. In the 10 months since, Kachin has seen a significant increase in operations in Shwegu, Mohnyin, Chibwe, Sunprabon, Myitkyina, Hpakant, Tanaing and Waingmaw townships.
Myanmar’s previous military-backed government halted construction of the controversial U.S. $3.6 billion Chinese-backed Myitsone hydropower project on the Irrawaddy in Kachin state in 2011 because of concerns over potential flooding and other environmental impacts. Locals were also angry that 90 percent of its electricity would be exported to China.
Residents told RFA they would continue to fight environmental threats to the region, regardless of who is in power.
Kyaw Naing Soe of Shwegu township expressed concern that the nearby tourist attraction of Shwe Maw Gyun island, which is home to sacred Buddhist sites, would suffer irreparable damage as an increasing number of illegal gold miners have arrived in the area by boat since September.
“The reason we are strongly opposed to these activities is that Shwe Maw Gyun island is one of the major landmarks of Kachin state and we don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said.
“It’s not just resistance from a religious point of view. It’s a prominent landmark of Kachin state. The river’s water level is quite low at present, but when the water level rises, the riverbanks will collapse.”
Resources at risk
Under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which was deposed by the military in February, the Kachin State Department of Mines had allocated 223 gold mines and 262 small-scale personal mines in 11 townships as of May 2020. The mine operators were not allowed to dredge the river and only permitted to dig 300 feet from the waterway.
The NLD government also established rules preventing gold miners from dumping waste into the river. However, the current mining operators do not follow these rules, locals said.
RFA called the director of the Kachin State Mining Department to inquire about the situation but received no response.
Dr. Tu Khaung, the minister of natural resources for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), joined residents in criticizing the unregulated gold mining activities in Kachin.
“It is true that gold mining operations have been on the rise in Kachin state since the coup,” he said.
“Illegal gold mining is on the rise everywhere — it’s as if there is no rule in the region. The junta is focusing its efforts to consolidate its power base, to hold onto power, and NUG is currently in no position to manage anything on the ground. Everything seems to be up for grabs.”
The sharp rise in unregulated gold mining is not only a cause for concern for the environment but also for various crimes and drug-related problems, residents said. They told RFA they are worried that if the economic crisis, which has worsened since the coup, is not addressed in time, the problem will only become worse.
Kachin state’s abundant natural resources — gold, amber, jade, copper, and rubies — have fueled a long-running civil war between the Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic armed organization, and the Myanmar military, which have clashed over the control of mining areas used to finance their operations.
Reported by Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.