Illegal gold mining expanding unchecked under junta in Myanmar’s Kachin state

A rapid expansion in illegal gold mining since the military coup is poisoning the water supply in Myanmar’s Kachin state and destroying the livelihoods of residents who say the ethnic Kachin group that administers the region has failed to police the sector.

Illegal mining of gold, as well as jade and rare earth minerals, is rampant in Kachin state, where successive governments have failed to regulate the industry for generations. However, the number of unsanctioned operations has ballooned since the military’s Feb. 1, 2021, takeover amid conflict between junta troops and armed resistance forces in the region.

Residents of Sumprabum township told RFA Burmese that illegal gold mines had “nearly doubled” in Kachin state since the coup and are devastating the environment, despite local protests.

“They used to dig in areas farther from our village but now they are digging quite close,” said a resident of Hpon Ing Yang village who, like other sources in the area, declined to be named citing fear of reprisal.

“The water in our stream is no longer suitable, even for washing, he said. The miners “have already excavated all around our village ... [and] we might have to move to some other place where there is still good soil for us to farm.”

The Hpon Ing Yang resident said that more than 20 companies using at least 40 machines are currently digging for gold near his village, which he described as “basically destroyed.”

“Even if the political situation becomes more stable, I don’t think there is any hope left for us here,” he said.

Expanding unchecked

A similar situation can be found in nearby Puta-O township’s villages of Tsum Pi Yang, In Loi Yang, Shi Kai Yang, Ah Lang Gar, In Hkar Gar and Hpon Kyan, sources told RFA.

According to laws governing small-scale and private mining, gold mines must be at least 300 feet away from water sources such as rivers, streams and lakes to prevent contamination from mining waste. Furthermore, gold mines are required to operate in a way that limits their environmental and socio-economic impact on local communities.

Nonetheless, illegal gold mining has expanded virtually unchecked in Puta-O since last year, destroying local livelihoods, said a resident of In Loi Yang village.

“In the past, people used to run small home businesses [such as farming] based on the natural shifts in the land and water table,” said the resident. “These days, people are digging with big machinery … and impacting our village and plantations, regardless of how much we ask them not to.”

He said there may be as many as 150 gold mining rigs in Puta-O alone and complained that mines are even operating in areas of cultural significance to the Kachin people.

Looking the other way

Residents and environmental activists told RFA that mining companies pay bribes to both the junta and the rebel Kachin Independence Organization to look the other way as they operate illegally.

Col. Norbu, spokesman for the KIO, said his group has established policies regarding gold mining and does not allow operations in populated areas or places of cultural significance.

“We have provided written instructions regarding this matter at the state level,” he said.

“The activities are scrutinized and allowed only after discussions at the state level. That’s why I think they are working in accordance with the instructions.”

When asked by RFA about mining in areas where residents work for their livelihoods, Norbu said that there “may be a weakness” in oversight for the KIO's determination of permit areas, and noted that many companies do not ask for official permission to mine.

Win Ye Tun, the junta’s social minister and spokesman for Kachin state, told RFA in October that there is “no legal permit for mining” in Kachin state and said the military has taken action against illegal gold mining in Mohnyin township.

However, an environmental activist in Kachin state said that the only thing stopping companies from mining is running out of sites to exploit.

“From an environmental standpoint, the areas designated as nature reserves and their natural resources will all be destroyed, and only land that does not produce gold will be left untouched,” the activist said.

“All other areas will have been excavated,” the activist said. “If it goes on like this, Kachin’s natural resources will soon be gone.”

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