MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Burma Update

Published by MAC on 2006-07-01


Burma Update

1st July 2006

MANGANESE MINE DISRUPTS TRADITIONAL LIFE-STYLE OF EN VILLAGERS

Based on a report in Undercurrents: Issue 2

July 2006

A report issued by a Lahu exile group has brought to light details about the environmental and cultural impacts of a Chinese manganese mining project in a distant corner of Shan State.

The mine, located near two villages inhabited by ethnic En people in mountainous countryside near the Nam Lwe river in Mongyawng tsp, has been operated for several years by a loose consortium of 17 Chinese entrepreneurs, apparently from neighbouring Yuunan province. The area is controlled by the National Democratic Alliance Army, an offshoot of the former Communist Party - Burma that has maintained a cease-fire with Burma's military junta since 1989. The NDAA profits from the mining operation by imposing a road toll on trucks which transport the manganese ore across the border into Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture in southern Yunnan.

Pictures accompanying the article in Undercurrents 2, an occasional report published by the Lahu National Development Organization based in Thailand, show an open-pit mining operation. The LNDO, which conducts undercover surveillance activities in the area, reports that an estimated thousand mine workers, all from the Chinese side of the border, are living and working at the mine. A survey last year found that approximately 34,000 tonnes of untreated ore were being trucked across the border annually to a refining facility owned by a company identified simply as the Standing Co Ltd of China.

According to Undercurrents 2, the manganese deposit was discovered by a Chinese geologist near the villages of Wan Saw and Wan Pha in the Mong Wa area about 15 years ago. It is not clear how long this particular mine has been going, but manganese mining was reported in the area by NDAA boss Sai Leun as long ago as 1999. Operations are currently expanding and the mine is now encroaching on the villages themselves. There are also plans to build an on-site refinery to cut down on the costs of trucking the ore. A dam has been built on a stream north of the villages to accommodate a small hydro-electric generating facility.

The En, a small ethnic minority of about 30,000, related to the better-known Wa people, live scattered about in various villages of eastern Shan state. They keep to a very traditional life-style, not inter-marrying with outsiders, cultivating rice and tea and the opium poppy and making their own distinctive clothing. They practise their own blend of spirit worship and Buddhism, believing themselves to be descendants of Mao San who looked after the Gautama's horse while he was still a prince. Even now every En village has a small horse stable in the centre of the village which is venerated as sacred space.

Plans for the expansion of the mining operation are forging ahead without concern for the local people, the LNDO reports. The consortium reportedly offered compensation to the En, if they would move elsewhere, but were told that the area had been the En's ancestral homeland for thousands of years and that the villagers had no intention of leaving. Nevertheless, they are disturbed by the impact the mine is having on the quality of their lifestyle with constant explosions and the noise caused by drilling and machinery. Soon after mining operations started they began to experience headaches, nose bleeds, coughing and dysentery unlike anything they had known before. Water from springs and streams which they tapped for generations became unpleasant to drink. A pipeline (pictured in the article) replacing the En's traditional bamboo gutters was installed by the miners and all water must now be taken from the pipeline.

China is the world's largest user of manganese which is a key element in producing steel alloys. There are over 600 manganese mines throughout the country, but only 25 have outputs exceeding 100,000 tonnes of ore per year. Moreover, the ore is generally of low-grade quality averaging between 20 and 30%. As a result, China imports more than two and half million tonnes of manganese ore annually. The biggest supplier is Australia, but reports over the last few years have indicated that upwards of 250,000 tonnes are imported annually from Burma.

This is somewhat of a mystery, since the only other operating manganese mine in the country is reported to be a small one between Taunggyi and Hopong in Shan state. There are 21 manganese mines in Yunnan alone and it could be that others like the one in the En homeland are operating in the Shan state border area without being widely known.

The LNDO report also includes a section on coal-mining in eastern Shan state. Two mines which export to Yunnan are in the NDAA strip along the Chinese border. A much larger coal mine is located about nine miles east of Kengtung. The SPDC has started and stopped deals between several companies at this site, Undercurrents 2 reports. A Thai company currently operates at the mine.

"However, researchers in the area report that operations have recently and inexplicably stopped again at the mine. Still, the Kengtung authorities have ordered nine villages in the area to relocate including some that have been established there for over a hundred years. The first wave of relocations began in April of this year. Villagers have lost their houses and farms without compensation and are being torn away from nearby relatives." Those ordered to vacate in 2006 include 582 households in Lahu and Akha villages, among them a leper colony with over 220 homes. Another four village including 660 Shan, Wa and Samtao families have been ordered to leave before 2009.

A map of eastern Shan state in Undercurrents 2 highlights existing and potential mining sites for lead, silver, gold, rubies coal and manganese. The report can be accessed at http://www.shanland.org/articles/environment/2006/Images/Undercurrents2.pdf

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