Gold Mining in Shwegyin Township, Pegu Division Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00


During the dry season, villagers in Shwegyin Township in Karen State used to pan for gold in the rivers and streams to supplement their income. EarthRights International describes how this traditional, smallscale mining method is being replaced by industrial mining technologies, which in turn is destroying the natural environment. The case study also exposes the link between militarization in Shwegyin Township and the subsequent human rights abuses and rapid increase in resource exploitation. ျမန္မာဘာသာ

1. Shwegyin Township and Its Gold

Shwegyin Township is located in Pegu Division in eastern Burma, east of the Sittaung River. Plains crisscrossed by streams extend from the Sittaung River east to the Shwegyin River where the terrain becomes hillier, becoming forested mountains that extend further to the east into Mutraw District, Karen State. The Shwegyin area is on the western edge of the Kayah-Karen /Tenasserim Moist Forest, which contains the largest, relatively intact bloc of tropical and sub-tropical moist broadleaf forests remaining in the Indochinese eco-region. This region is listed by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the world’s 200 most significant eco-regions due to the high levels of biodiversity found there.1 Most of the fertile farmland is in the plains along the banks of the Sittaung, Shwegyin and Mawtama Rivers. Karen and Kawa villagers traditionally lived in this area growing rice, panning for gold, and maintaining plantations of shaut (a large green citrus fruit), mangosteen, durian, betel nut, and rubber.

Map - Gold mining areas

Figure 1: Gold mining areas near Shwegyin

Shwegyin Township has been the scene of fi ghting between the Karen National Union (KNU) and successive Burmese regimes since 1949. Since the 1970s, villagers in this area have been subject to the Burma Army’s “Four Cuts” counter-insurgency strategy, used to destroy resistance groups by cutting them off from food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. The number of battalions stationed in the area has increased dramatically. In an attempt to eliminate access to the plains by the KNU forces in the mountains, the Burma Army conducted several mass forced relocations of villages on the plains to sites closer to Burma Army camps.

In the aftermath of the forced relocations and additional offensives in 1997, logging and mining companies arrived along the Shwegyin and Mawtama Rivers. These companies, which operate in close collaboration with the Burma Army based in the plains, are rapidly extracting the natural resources left in Shwegyin Township: Gold, tropical hardwoods and Map of Shwe Gyin area non-timber forest products. Temporary villages have sprouted up around the mining sites, and are now mostly occupied by Burman mine workers from across the Sittaung River.

Since 2005, in violation of an informal ceasefire agreement reached in 2004, the Burmse military regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) has launched new offensives throughout northern Karen State and eastern Pegu Division. Shwegyin has been targeted in offensives, and soldiers have been attacking displaced civilian communities in hiding to the east of the Shwegyin River, shooting them on sight and destroying their food supplies.2 Some of the most severe humanitarian atrocities in eastern Burma during 2007 were committed in Shwegyin Township.3 As a result of the SPDC’s offensive, there are now approximately 10,300 internally displaced villagers in Shwegyin Township.4 Military operations continue to the present.


2. Traditional Gold Mining Practices

Traditionally, villagers living in the Shwegyin area depended on the rivers and forestlands for their livelihoods and cultural practices. The Shwegyin and Sittuang Rivers were very important for villagers who used them for fishing, irrigation, bathing, washing, and drinking water. Shwegyin town is located on the Shwegyin River near the confluence with the Mawtama River. “Shwe Gyin” means “gold panning” in Burmese. Nearly all of the gold found in the township is located in the alluvial soils of rivers and streams. Areas where people can fi nd gold now are along Bonelone Stream (Su-mu-lo klow), Mawtama Stream (Pet-Maung klow), Kawet Stream (Pa-Ta-Loe klow) and other areas in the township.

Over two centuries ago, the Kawa, a minority ethnic group, inhabited Shwegyin. It is said that they collected gold from the rivers and nearby forests. Local villagers believe that gold was dug from holes in the jungle, but now this area is covered by thick jungle and the techniques used in the past are a mystery. Most of the villagers in this area grow rice and maintain plantations of shaut, mangosteen, durian, betel nut, and rubber during the rainy season. Both sides of the river bank have shaut plantations, a major source of income for villagers living in this area.

Before industrial mining methods were introduced, gold was mined seasonally by local farmers from villages next to the rivers. During the dry season, when villagers have more time and the water level is low, Karen villagers panned for gold in the Shwegyin and Mawtama Rivers and their tributaries to supplement their income from their fi elds and plantations. Gold panning provided important income for the villagers even if they did not pan gold for the entire year. Those who could do well in their business collected gold to make golden rings, earrings and lerswe, which would be presented as a gift for their children.

Traditional Gold Mining apparatus

A local villager and his traditional gold-mining apparatus in the dry season. The holes in the riverbed are very shallow.

Gold panning villagers

Local villagers panning for gold

harvesting shaut

Local women harvesting Shaut

Shaut harvest

Shaut harvest

To pan gold, villagers dig a hole in the bed or bank of the river. They do not go far from the river because they need water for the process. The holes are typically about two to three feet wide and five to ten feet deep. Very few holes are dug, and the holes are refilled annually during the rainy season, so they have very little impact on the natural environment. Villagers use a wooden sieve to sift through the soil to look for gold. The villagers do not use machinery or otherwise disrupt large parts of the river banks. Neither do the villagers use mercury or other dangerous chemicals to amalgamate the gold. The tools they use also cause less environmental impact.5 The local people do not rely on gold mining but rather they live within the constraints of their environment. Their low-impact gold panning means that they can continue to fish and consume the water in the river and sustain their natural resources for their children and future generations.6

Traditionally, people would work together to collect the gold. Groups would be formed with family members, relatives or neighbors. They would collect gold about the size of one paddy seed (approximately three by eight millimeters) each day. A broker would come around to buy the gold or the villagers would travel to town to sell it. Most importantly, people in this area understood that nobody owned the riverbanks. If somebody found gold, other people would not come to search in the same area. They understood that unless a group abandoned a particular panning site, another group would not take over that site. These traditions show that people respect each other and believe that each group found their gold by luck. There is trust within the community, and people were not eager to look for more gold or areas where gold will be found. People made sure to leave space where they will mine for gold in the future, rather than moving every year to another place. This practice went beyond gold panning: no rich people bought land and used the gold in order to produce a profit.


3. Rapid Expansion of Resource Extraction

“The gold mining started a long time ago in this area. There are many places

that you can mine in this area. People used to use small-scale techniques

along the stream and in the jungle. Now people use high pressure hose

machines to get the gold. Last year there were 40 gold mining machines

in this area.”

– Burman migrant mine worker in Shwegyin township.7

In 1997, the SPDC began to industrialize the exploitation of gold deposits and forests in the Shwegyin area. Businessmen from central Burma arrived and in collusion with the Burmese Army gained mining concessions and began to force people off of their land. Small-scale miners, many of whom have worked in the area for generations, were pushed to the margins.

Burmese soldiers often refused to allow people to access to their plantation and farmland which were the main source of income for the people. Many of the plantations were far from the village, up to half a day’s walk, and it become impossible for the villagers to go to the plantation in the morning and come back in the evening. Burmese soldiers made baseless accusations against people who went to look after their land, saying the local people have connections to armed opposition groups. Thus, people who used to rely on plantations and highland farming were uprooted. Other people were forced to sell their plantations for a very low price because they could not look after their land, and many plantations became gold mining fields. Individuals were not allowed to mine for gold unless they paid the Burmese military “taxes.” These provisions left no option for the local people to maintain their traditional livelihoods.

In response to land seizures and denial of access, local villagers organized themselves into small groups and sold off their land and to invest in machinery and get a permit to mine gold because that became the only option for their survival.8 This also led to a rapid increase in gold mining groups. This increase in gold mining operators combined with the lure of big profits led to a search for as much as gold possible, leaving villagers with no means to care for their environment. Local small businesses are mining the gold without any concern for future generation.

new gold mine

A new gold mine, with high-pressure water lines

By 2005 there were more than 40 mining businesses in the Shwegyin area. The three best known companies are the Aye Mya Pyi Sone Company, Kan Wa Company, and Ka Lone Kyeik Company.9 Mining companies brought large hydraulic equipment to extract gold from the rivers. These machines use diesel engines to pump water through hoses at a high pressure, a method known as hydraulic mining.10 The water then is directed at the banks of rivers and streams to dislodge and wash away soil and rock. The sediment goes into a large sluice lined with a chemical which captures the gold particles in the sediment. Liquid mercury is the chemical agent used widely in gold mining operations throughout Burma including Shwegyin, impairing Burma’s natural environment far into the future.11 After the mercury and gold are separated, the remaining sediment is washed away downstream. This type of mining is highly destructive to the immediate natural environment and to the ecosystems downstream and has been banned in many countries. According to one Karen farmer in Shwegyin Township:

“We all suffer, but in different ways around the Shwegyin River. Some people suffer from mining, some from dam building, some from taxes and some from other forms of oppression. It is very hard to live in this difficult situation. …What we once considered our treasure has now become our sorrow. …All the places and fields along the Shwegyin River used to be owned by the Karen people. Many of these places are old village sites. When the next generation is asked where their parents lived, they won’t be able to say anything because the land will have been destroyed and there won’t be anything left to show them.”12

operating gold mine sluice

A gold mining sluice in operation

4. Environmental Impacts

Gold mining in Shwegyin Township has been extremely destructive to the natural environment. Mining operations have drained water sources, entirely depleting some streams and permanently and adversely altering others. There is a visible increase in soil erosion and sediment levels in the rivers and streams, and some river beds have simply collapsed due to pressure caused from the removal of silt and soil from the banks of the rivers and the bases of riverbank trees.

devastation from high pressure mining

Use of high-pressure mining near rivers has devastated many areas.

The rivers and streams in the township that host mining operations are polluted with mercury and other chemicals used to amalgamate the gold. Mercury is highly toxic to the natural environment, while also posing a range of serious risks to public health. Human exposure to mercury through ingestion, handling, or inhalation of fumes can cause neurological symptoms affecting speech, eyesight, and hearing. While inhalation can cause serious respiratory problems and harmful nausea, long term exposure to mercury or methylmercury (formed when mercury contacts organic matter) can lead to kidney failure and even death.

destruction from sediment and toxins from gold mining

Sediment and toxics from gold mining have destroyed many places.

Additional pollution related to mining in Shwegyin Township is caused when diesel fuel and oil leak into the river water from pumps and other mining equipment. The river water is used to irrigate the villagers’ rice fields and plantations, and Karen farmers downstream report that shaut and other fruit trees have died. Many villagers are no longer willing to use the water from the rivers to irrigate their farms. A Karen farmer in Shwegyin Township said: “Now the people are having a lot of problems from the gold mining because the river is polluted and the people have stopped using the water. During the rainy season there were landslides around the gold mining sites and the river water polluted the fields. The people downstream have stopped using the water and the shaut trees are dying.”13


5. Land Confiscation and Loss of Livelihood

“Business people joined with the military and restricted the gold mining

sites. If the military found a place, they forced the farmers to sell their land.”

– Karen farmer in Shwegyin township.14

The area has been heavily militarized in order to guarantee security over the land, people, and lucrative mining projects. The Burma Army provides the mining companies security, protecting the companies from interference by local civilians. The Army provides security for the mining concessions by setting up Army camps and patrolling through the area, and accompanying the miners when they travel to and from the mines. The Army also has confiscated land owned by civilians to use for camps and commercial farming and has demanded money, labor, food and materials from local villagers.

The Army adds military force to the mining companies’ efforts to acquire land, intimidating the villagers to sell. When the companies cannot persuade villagers to sell their land, they resort to a stronger method, arranging for the Army to coerce the villagers into selling. Typically, soldiers visit the landowner and urge him or her to sell the land. They are closely followed by a representative from a mining company who then offers a price far below the land’s market value. The representative points out to the landowner that at least some compensation now is better than none later. In the coercive company of the Army and mining companies, villagers commonly succumb to the intimidation, selling their land for a price well below its market value. If a villager is particularly strong willed and intimidation tactics are unsuccessful, the Army simply confiscates the land. Army units based around Shwegyin, including IB 57, LIB 349 and LIB 350, have seized land from villagers and given it to the mining companies.15

When the mining companies arrived in 1997, the original Karen villages had all been relocated or forced to flee years before. Many villagers, most of whom are Karen living along the Shwegyin River, still maintain plantations and fields in their original locations. As is common in the area, the Army permits them to work the land but strictly prohibits them from permanently resettling in their old villages. Villagers are required to pay exorbitant fees to the military for such working visits. Villagers who are living in hiding in the mountains nearby the Shwegyin River and along the Mawtama River also occasionally return to work their fields.

A Burman migrant worker in Shwegyin Township describes the abandoned villages: “In our area there are many gold mining sites on old village sites and they named this area Tha Bway La Ha. There are many old villages that have been destroyed in this mining area. Now there are no more people in these old villages. We see plants, house posts, broken pots and wells where the old villages used to be. I don’t know anything about this area. I know that before in this area there were many Karen people that had shaut plantations.”16

In Shwegyin Township, Karen village sites that were subject to relocation and deserted in the 1970s and 1980s are now reoccupied by Burman mine workers. These villages are temporary sites to house miners and their families. Many local people were left with no choice but to work for the mining companies, otherwise there is no way to earn a living.

Soon after many outsiders moved into the area, local habits and traditions were destroyed. Local villagers complain that some of the migrant workers do not respect them or their customs. For example, when migrant workers trespass on plantations of local people seeking food, such behavior is interpreted by local people as not only disrespectful but theft. Furthermore, many local in this area are animist and feel the migrant worker do not respect their religion. During certain animist religious ceremonies, the local people post signs requesting privacy, but some workers ignore the signs.

The influx of migrant workers has also brought other social and public health problems. Sex workers have migrated to the district, sometimes at the behest of Burmese Army officers, to provide services to the large number of soldiers and laborers in the area.17 The spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV in other mining areas of Burma are well documented,18 and the same phenomenon is occurring in Shwegyin. An increase in gambling and drinking is also a problem around the mining sites.


6. Conclusion

Environmental and social impacts of large-scale mining ranging from lack of participation by local communities to loss of livelihood and violence are directly responsible for the deterioration of the environment and traditional cultural practices in Shwegyin Township. Heavy militarization in the area and intensive gold mining have caused enormous suffering for local villagers who are no longer permitted to continue their traditional gold mining and farming methods. The Burma Army has severely restricted movement, used forced labor, made demands for food and building materials, and confiscated land for its own commercial projects. The Army bends the laws or ignores them entirely, and the businessmen who own the mining companies exploit the situation and are able to make huge profits with very little concern for local villagers or the environment. In this way, local villagers effectively have been displaced. They lack access to the necessary mining equipment, and are now finding it extremely difficult to survive.

The Burmese Army continues to consolidate its gains in the mountains, especially along the east bank of the Shwegyin River and along the Mawtama River. This includes the eastern part of the mountain range, from south to north, through Yo Mu Soe, Pu Soe, Tho Plwe and Ta Paw Lay areas where many people believe gold and other natural resources are abundant. If gold is found, the mining company and a logging company will inevitably follow. Some of the mining companies have already expressed interest in moving their operations into these areas.19

Concerned by the dire social and environmental impacts, local KNU officers tried to stop the mining in the area but were unsuccessful. They failed partly because the areas were not under their complete control. Burmese military was heavily present in the area, working with outside mining companies in order to access gold. In order to obtain full access to the mines, companies send their representatives to negotiate with the local KNU offices. This led to some KNU officials taking payments from these companies. Even in areas not controlled by the KNU, companies negotiated with the KNU so that the KNU would not disturb their mining activities. The KNU offices could use these leverages to impose regulations to mitigate the impact of the mining in this area.20


7. Recommendations

In order to address the loss of traditional livelihood and the negative social and environmental impacts of gold mining in Shwegyin Township, we recommend the following specific immediate changes to policies and laws by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

  1. The SPDC should grant civilians rights over the land they occupy, including rights to obtain legal land title.
  2. With regard to the environmental destruction occurring in Shwegyin Township, the SPDC should replace outdated laws and ineffective environmental provisions to bring them into accordance with its 1994 Environmental Policy and the UN supported national action plan for the environment known as “Myanmar Agenda 21.”
  3. The SPDC should strengthen the National Commission for Environmental Affairs (NCEA) by passing laws to protect the environment and providing for Environmental Impact Assessments, as well as empowering it to enforce existing laws and providing it with sufficient human and financial resources.
  4. The SPDC should enforce Section 12(a) of SLORC Law No. 8/94 which requires: a) all applications to the Ministry of Mines conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) prior to receiving official approval to extract minerals, gems, and precious metals; and b) Ministry of Mines to investigate whether the environment, flora and fauna, highways, religious property, and/or items of cultural heritage would be negatively affected by mining activities. Laws and regulations in both these areas need to be strengthened.
  5. The SPDC should revise and enforce penalties for violating environmental laws. Fines and other deterrents should be adjusted to account for the differences in comparative wealth of individuals, Burmese companies, and foreign companies. This will help prevent situations where it might be more cost-effective to damage the environment instead of preventing the harm in the first place.
  6. The SPDC should offer financial and other incentives to state-owned enterprises and private sector actors to manage the country’s natural resources in a sustainable way.
  7. With regards to mining, the SPDC should ban and take immediate legal action against individuals and companies using ecologically damaging practices, such as: 1) hydraulic mining, a practice that has been outlawed throughout the world; 2) “deep trenching,” which involves cutting deep trenches across the farmland; as well as 3) the indiscriminate use of mercury, cyanide, sulphuric acid, and other toxic chemicals to leach precious metals and minerals from extracted ore.
  8. To avoid any conflicts of interest, the SPDC should create an independent agency to conduct future social and environmental impact assessments. The SPDC should repeal the section of the SLORC Law No. 8/94 which states that no mining company is liable to prosecution or fines, and promulgate laws that permit citizens whose health and/or livelihoods are harmed by mining activities, including downstream pollution, to file lawsuits and receive adequate compensation for their injuries.
  9. The SPDC should impose and enforce rules and regulations for the use of adequate land and sustainable development in the areas where mining is currently taking place and ensure local people are able to manage their own natural resources to strengthen their livelihoods.
  10. Concerning the future impact of gold mining in the area, all parties including SPDC and opposition groups should cease gold extraction until proper rules and regulations are in place and effective.
  11. Both the SPDC and KNU as well as civil society groups must empower and encourage local people to continue to live their traditional way in order to sustain, prevent and protect their environment for future generations.
  12. When developing rules and regulations, all parties should work together with local people to strengthen the rule of law and setup effective systems to learn from traditional methods such that gold can be taken with less impact on social and environmental issues.


About EarthRights International (ERI)

ERI is a group of activists, organizers, and lawyers with expertise in human rights, the environment, and corporate and government accountability. Since 1995, ERI has worked in Burma to monitor the impacts of the military regime’s policies and activities on local populations and ecosystems. Through our training program, ERI trains young environmental activities from diverse ethnic backgrounds in Burma to empower young leaders with skills and knowledge to work on earth rights issues in their communities. In addition, ERI works alongside affected community groups to prevent human rights and environmental abuses associated with large-scale development projects in Burma. Currently, ERI’s Burma Project focuses on large-scale dams, oil and gas development, and mining.




1 The Kayah/Karen Tenasserim Moist Forest “contains Indochina’s largest block of moist forests, one of its richest plant diversities (partly because of the geographical spread), and its largest number of mammals, including tigers (Panthera tigris), Asian elephants, (Elephas maximus), gaur (Bos gaurus), and clouded leopards (Pardofelis nebulosa).” <>. Last accessed 16 April 2009.

2 See, e.g., Free Burma Rangers, “Burma Army troops kill villagers and IDPs as they mass troops with over 90 battalions now in northern Karen State, Burma,” January 10, 2008, at: < 2008/20080110.html>. Last accessed 17 Feb. 2009.

3 See, e.g., Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) website, at <>. Last accessed 17 Feb. 2009.

4 TBBC, supra note 3.

5 EarthRights International Interview 2008.

6 Karen River Watch Interview 2008.

7 EarthRights International (2007). Turning Treasure into Tears: Mining, Dams, and Deforestation in Shwegyin Township, Pegu Division, Burma. Available online at <>. Last accessed 17 Feb. 2009. [Hereinafter “Treasure into Tears”].

8 Karen River Watch Interview, 2008.

9 EarthRights International Interview, 2008.

10 See, e.g., <>. Last accessed May 11, 2009.

11 One study in California found toxic mercury in rivers 100 years after gold mining ended. <>. Last accessed 17 Feb. 2009.

12 Treasure into Tears, p. 44.

13 Ibid.

14 Treasure into Tears, p. 41.

15 Ibid.

16 Treasure into Tears, p. 44.

17 Treasure into Tears, pp. 44-45.

18 See, e.g., “Burma miners pay for fatal pleasures,” The Independent, 18 April 1994, at < in-heroinshooting-galleries-where-the-aids-virus-is-now-rife-writes-tim-mcgirk-in-mandalay-1370825. html>. Last accessed April 16, 2009.

19 EarthRights International Interview 2008.

20 Karen River Watch Interview 2008.

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