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Shan State Coal Mine Brings Misery for Villagers,

Environmental Degradation

Images by
Suthep Kritsanavarin
Text by
Suthep Kritsanavarin and Paul Vrieze
PINLAUNG TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Farmer U Thit Nyein clearly remembers how, in 2003, local villagers were informed of plans by Myanmar's then-military government to begin mining coal deposits that were discovered below their farms in the hills of southern Shan State.

“Don't ask me how much; you will get as much as they give you,” U Thit Nyein recalled the village chief’s message to farmers who asked how they would be compensated. “You guys don't own any land - the only thing you own is the space for your dead body when you die.”

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
There was to be no consultation and a pittance in compensation for some 300 ethnic Pa-O families who were forcibly evicted from about 500 acres of land to make way for the mine. In the end, U Thit Nyein said he received just 8,000 kyats (US$6.50) per acre for his family’s 12 acres of farmland.

Villagers have since struggled to make a living, while heavy pollution from the power plant has affected the environment and their health. Many of U Thit Nyein's friends went abroad; some never returned. He decided to care for his ageing parents and stayed. “Most young people go abroad illegally,” he told me. “They didn't have much choice to make a living here. It's because we lost the land that we lived off.” 

 Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Coal mining and burning to expand The situation at the Tigyit mine and power plant serves as a strong reminder of the need to improve Myanmar’s policies on the social and environmental impacts of coal industries. Particularly since President Thein Sein’s government has announced that coal is to supply about a third of the country’s rapidly expanding energy supply by 2030, when Myanmar is said to require a total 23,500 megawatts annually. 
A total of 18 coal-fired plants have so far been planned in states and regions in central and southern Myanmar. Some local communities and civil society groups have already staged protests out of fear for the projects’ environmental impacts, even if these employ foreign “clean coal technology.” 

Coal mining is also likely to expand after Parliament in December approved revisions to the Mining Law, which will create more opportunities for foreign mining firms to partner with local companies to explore for mineral deposits.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Polluting Lake Inle Over the past 10 years, the Tigyit site has become home to the country's largest open-pit coal mine and its most important operating coal-fired power plant. The mine produces nearly 2,000 tons of lignite coal every day, much of which supplies the plant. It has a generation capacity of nearly 120 megawatts and is owned by China’s state-owned China National Heavy Machinery Corporation and local firms Eden Group and Shan Yoma Nagar.

Today, piles of coal destined for the power plant tower above houses in Tigyit, which is located on a major tributary of the famous Inle Lake, an important tourist attraction in Myanmar. Local waterways have been polluted by the coal industry and mine blasts have wrecked the local Buddhist pagoda.

 Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
In recent years, concerns have been growing among authorities and activists over the state of Inle lake’s ecosystem, which has suffered from the pressures of expanding tourism, recurrent drought, deforestation and rising PH levels, which are associated with chemical contamination.

The Tigyit power plant produces an estimated 100-150 tons of toxic fly ash per day. This waste, as well as coal dust and other mining byproducts, flow into Inle Lake via Tigyit Creek and Balu Creek. Although no scientific study of environmental effects has been conducted to date, local residents believe air pollution has affected their health, while runoff from the mine has damaged the lake's marine ecosystem

“I have been a fisherman since I was 14,” said Ko Soe, 40. “There are fewer fish every year. It's because fish aren't able to reproduce (due to pollution).” He says there were nearly 400 fishermen among all the villages on the lake when he was younger; now there is so little catch that there are only about 30 left.
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI

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Poisoning the population?Coal extraction has also caused long-term health issues, according to community members. One patient I met had worked as a coal mine guard for more than 12 years. He lived inside the mining site, just 50 meters from the huge open crater, which is some 500 meters wide and 60 meters deep.

“One rainy night, I couldn't walk properly and [experienced] terrible dizziness,” he said. A doctor he visited ordered an X-ray that showed damage to his lung, a condition that was attributed to exposure to pollution. The patient said he was unable to receive any support from mining companies for his medical treatment.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Nan Htwe Htwe Khan said her mother developed hypertension and experienced troubled breathing before passing away, citing the mining operations as one of the reasons she died. She has since turned to activism in order to encourage communities to speak out against the mine and plant.

“I want to free my people from fear,” she said, “that's why I joined a civil society group here.”

When I visited Tigyit, operations at the mine had been on hold for ten months while the power plant was being upgraded by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation. However, locals worried that operations would soon resume, and with it the pollution.

“I have heard that the mine and power plant will start again soon,” said Nan Htwe Htwe Khan. “If it does operate again, I am afraid many people will have difficulty breathing.”

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI

A version of this essay was first published in 2016 by the Natural Resource Governance Institute as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.