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.