Traditional Oil Drilling Supports Hundreds in Central Burma

A villager operates an engine to lower a drill into an oil well at Bandau Pen village in Thayet Township, Magway Division. (Photo: Vincenzo Floramo / The Irrawaddy)

THAYET TOWNSHIP, Magway Division — In the scorching midday heat of central Burma, dozens of families are hard at work.

In the shade of tarpaulins and thatched-roof huts, workers operate makeshift wooden drills and old engine blocks to dig wells in order to bring up that most coveted of energy sources: oil.

The workers and their children collect the sticky crude oil — which covers much of their bodies — in order to sell it to local refineries that use it to produce petrol and diesel.

For some 250 impoverished families here at Bandua Pen village, a hilly site located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, this dirty, backbreaking work is a key source of income.

Petroleum was first found in Thayet District in the 19th century and in 1883 the British sunk three oil wells that were later abandoned.

For several decades however, groups of poor families have come here to explore for oil and exploit any finds. If they can collect oil they are obliged to pay local landowners a concession fee, which is set at between US $500 to $2,000 for the use of a roughly 20 square-meter plot.

Like in many developing countries, poor rural communities in Burma have found ways to exploit shallow sources of mineral and oil wealth in order to supplement their meager farming incomes.

On Ramree Island, located off the coast of Arakan State, there are 5,000 traditional wells, according to a 2008 report by Arakan Oil Watch. It said villagers use drilling methods they learned from a Canadian oil company that explored the region in the 1800s.

The report describes the traditional methods: “A tripod of tree trunks or bamboo about 40 to 50 meters high is constructed over the well. The tripod supports a pulley to which a drilling tool is attached. This method requires the workers to spend several hours vigorously pounding in order to reach and then extract oil.”

“The cost of drilling equipment is high, upwards from $400, and is shared by five to seven households,” according to the NGO, which says workers can only earn several dollars per day.

“Oil isn’t easy to come by… it typically takes two to three months of drilling of up to 500 feet before oil is discovered,” it says, adding that international oil companies, by comparison, drill to a depth of 10,000 meters.

Additional reporting for this story by Paul Vrieze.

6 Responses to Traditional Oil Drilling Supports Hundreds in Central Burma

  1. Burmese people had survived for the past fifty years without the government’s assistance. They know how to struggle and how to survive. They all passed the test. Moe importantly, Burmese people are intelligent and smart. If the government opens up into democracy, Burma can catch up other ASEAN members in a short period of time. The governments were so useless that’s why the Burmese people became so poor. Every bad things were created by the governments, not by the people.

    • But don’t forget the French saying a people get the government they deserve. Government is a management system. Every management inherits the legacies of the preceding management. You cannot judge the performance of today’s government in a few days,months or even years. Burma has to contend with the legacies of the BSPP era. do not attribute the bad legacies of the previous successive regimes to today’s government. give Presidnet Thein Sein and his cabinet a chance.
      Burmese people could have rebelled against the BSPP but why did they not? and why did General Tin Oo wait till he got imprisoned to denounced BSPP and its son NUP?
      Why did Burmese people blindly follow NLD? Inability to think?
      You need to look at the historical facts to get a true understanding of the Burmese society. No use parrotting the slogans of Western democracies, like pursuit of liberty, hapiness etc etc. have you ever come across any human being who does not pursue happiness whatever it means to them?

      You are right Burmese people are intelligent. But they need good teachers.

  2. Oil was on the surface in ancient times, with place names like Yenanchaung (Smelly Water Creek) and the Burmese learnt to use it for lighting. A British spying expedition at the time led by Michael Symes encountered it and rightly guessed its potential.

    Mining in the traditional way has also existed at Jpakant and more importantly Mogok until Oopaing (UMEHL) muscled in and tool over in partnership wit its cronies and erstwhile drug barons. The Burmese Way to the capitalist New World Order.

  3. nobody talks about the pollution and permanent damage to the environment caused by these wells. there is absolutely no measure taken to contain oil spills and the whole area is filled with black sticky crude. all these pollutants are carried further afar once the rain comes, down into streams and from streams to rivers. people living downstream of these rivers will unwittingly be drinking these polluted water. These primitive wells and ‘refineries’ to process the crude oil are also fire hazards. untold number of people died from such fires every year.
    NGOs must do something to stop all these drilling and irreversible damage to the environment.

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