Mining companies are using the civil unrest that is breaking out across Burma as a diversion to extract coal in areas of southern Shan State where they have not attained licenses, according to rice farmers affected by illegal operations.
“At a time when people are focused on protests against the military government, the companies are taking advantage of the unrest. They are unconcerned about the political situation or how the people are suffering,” said Sai Sam, who lives in Pinlaung Township, where the mining is happening.
The Tigyit open pit coal mine has depleted the township’s water table, causing widespread drought that has adversely effected agriculture, the primary livelihood in the region. Wells of a depth of 180 feet are now dry, forcing farmers to dig deeper or look for other water sources to irrigate their crops.
The mine was started in 2002 by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation, in partnership with Burmese companies Eden Group and Shan Yoma Nagar Company. About 200 tons of coal are extracted each day from the site, located about 16 miles from Inle Lake. Wastewater from the mine flows into the lake, which is the second largest in Burma and an ASEAN national heritage site.
Ma Moe said farmers used to have up to five sources of water, but now there’s nothing left. “Farmers who can’t get enough well water to irrigate their farms are using wastewater from the coal mines and the chemicals are affecting the agriculture.”
As early as 2004, farmers started experiencing water shortages caused by mining. About 11,592 people live in 25 villages located within a five mile radio of the Tigyit mine.
According to 2011 report by the Pa-O Youth Organization, coal mining has produced at least 100 tons of coal ash and waste and it is disposed in a coal-fired thermal power plant. Air and water pollution caused skin diseases and other illnesses for about 2,000 residents, the report said.