Gold-rich area of northern Myanmar ‘like a desert’ as post-coup mining operations decimate Uru River 

Unrestricted mining along the Uru River in Myanmar’s north since last year’s coup has depleted the area of gold and destroyed the landscape, locals and environmental advocates said. 

Following the military’s ousting of the elected administration in February 2021, mining companies have reportedly been bribing the Myanmar army to gain access to the waterway in Sagaing’s Homalin Township, as battles rage between the junta and resistance forces elsewhere in the region. 

The shift caused a massive influx of unauthorised extractive operations on the Uru, and is indicative of a phenomenon occurring in gold-rich areas nationwide

Moe Moe Tun, the executive director of Citizen Action for Transparency (CAfT), published a recent report on the effects of illegal gold mining in the area. She visited Homalin Township in January and April, and observed that most miners were operating without licences. 

Mining operations along the Uru River seen in Homalin Township in early 2022 (CAfT)

Photos from the CafT report showed the river crowded with boats, and with large pipes and pumps positioned on the banks of the river, whose water had turned to the colour of clay. 

“They treated the stream as if they were entitled to it, like it was their inheritance,” she said. “They were using elephants and jet ferries. They would try to mine in one spot for two or three days and then would move to another spot if they couldn’t find any gold.”

Now experiencing diminishing returns on their operations, Moe Moe Tun said that many miners are looking to exploit other gold-rich areas in the region, including the upper Chindwin River, to which the Uru is a tributary. 

Even if the miners move on, the destruction of the Uru, and contamination with compounds used in gold mining such as cyanide and mercury, has left the area barren.

“It’s like a desert now, with no plants or trees to be found,” Moe Moe Tun explained. 

A satellite image of the Uru River in Homalin Township (Google Earth)

A local told Myanmar Now that this pollution of the Uru River started at least 20 years ago, due to the effects of gold mining operations upstream in both Homalin and Hpakant, Kachin State, but that it had escalated since the military’s seizure of power.

“We’ve always been trying to maintain order, but it went out of control when the military coup happened. People are now allowed to mine gold recklessly in places where they weren’t allowed to before,” he said, adding that operations had continued through the current rainy season, when they previously would have paused for these months. 

An officer in the anti-junta Homalin Township People’s Administration Team confirmed to Myanmar Now that illegal gold mining on the Uru River had indeed been a problem prior to the coup, but that it had dramatically worsened in the last 18 months. 

“It breaks my heart to see our natural resources being destroyed like this,” he said. “Everything is lawless and chaotic now so that the military authorities can benefit from the bribes.”

Boats travel along the Uru River between dry and eroding banks (CAfT)

He described the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) government as having tried to limit mining operations by annually taxing mining companies at a rate of 14m kyat (more than US$10,000 prior to the coup) for every four acres for which they were granted access. 

However, environmental and civil society organisations were critical of the NLD’s lack of regulation on the mining sector, with many groups calling for a moratorium on extractive operations until Myanmar had undergone a federal political transition.

The Homalin People’s Administration officer alleged that miners in his township have also long been expected to covertly pay a 16m kyat (more than $12,000 prior to the coup) fee to the Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA) for permission to work in their territory. 

He claimed that the armed group, like the military, was still collecting bribes at the time of reporting from unlicensed miners and that its members had been known to beat and detain those who failed to pay. The SNA has also been accused of fighting alongside the Myanmar army against resistance forces. 

“The military and the SNA have collaboratively allowed gold to be mined in the Chindwin River and the Uru River,” the officer explained. 

Myanmar Now contacted SNA spokesperson Col Sai Aung Mein for comment on the allegations that the SNA required payments from gold miners. He confirmed that paying “taxes” was a precondition for operating in the area. 

“It is true that they have to pay taxes as it’s our territory and we tax everyone who runs a business in our territory,” he said. 

The officer from Homalin’s People’s Administration Team said that locals had filed a complaint with the SNA highlighting the environmental degradation caused by the mining, but no response had been issued. 

“Nobody dares to stop them,” he said. 

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