Red Dirt and Pebbles: For Farmers, Broken Promises at the Myitsone Dam

By Nyein Nyein 12 June 2013

KACHIN STATE—In Burma’s northernmost state, 44-year-old Ywal Nu once supported her children by farming a plot of land along the fertile Irrawaddy River. In 2010, the mother of seven was forced to relocate as part of efforts to develop the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam, but was told she would receive compensation—including a new house, 100,000 kyats ($105) and two acres of land—so she could continue farming in a new location.

With little choice, the ethnic Kachin farmer picked up and moved, as did her neighbors and the residents in five other villages near the dam site. But two years later, she says the compensation from the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI)—a flimsy home that shakes in the wind, and red land that is littered with pebbles—was far from what she had in mind.

“The crops don’t grow here because the ground is stone land,” she told The Irrawaddy recently. “So I have to leave my children at home and go back to my old village, Tangphre, to do [small-scale] gold mining.”

The 6,000-megawatt Myitsone Dam, was suspended by the Burmese government in September 2011 due to widespread public outcry over its potential environmental and social impact. However, in Aungmyinthar and Maliyang villages—where Ywal Nu and hundreds of other farming families were relocated—many say they lack job opportunities and have been unable to support their families by farming.

“It’s very hot here, and the plants have to fight to grow in this reddish ground you see,” said 45-year-old Mong Rein La, who moved to Aungmyinthar from Padan Kwin village. More than a dozen residents in Aungmyinthar and Maliyang told The Irrawaddy that their new land was not suitable for farming.

Authorities relocated nearly 400 households from Padan Kwin, Tangphre and the village of Myitsone to Aungmyinthar, while about 70 households from Taungpyan, Kharbar and Shwephar were moved to Maliyang, on the other side of the Irrawaddy River.

In Aungmyinthar, residents say they rely in small-scale gold mining during the dry season from September to May and work as wage laborers the rest of the year, often cutting wild grass for wealthy plantation owners.

“Our villagers come back here for small-scale gold mining and agricultural work,” a woman [working] at a small grocery store in Myitsone village told The Irrawaddy.

Aungmyinthar and Maliyang also lack compounds to store livestock, and many residents say their cattle has wandered off to areas near the dam project.

“Our animals, like our cows and buffalo, go back to the grasslands, which now are owned by Asia World and CPI,” said Zaw Lwun, the sole villager of Tangphre who refused to leave his home. Asia World, a major Burmese conglomerate, is building the dam project in collaboration with CPI.

Zaw Lwun said he and about 30 other residents had lost their livestock over the past two years.

“When we want to get back our cows [which entered the dam project area], we have to go through a long process of asking permission at the project’s checkpoint, as it is a restricted area,” he said.

Mong Rein La also tried to fetch his livestock in June last year, but the cattle continued returning to the original grassland for food.  “So we leave our animals where they are—we don’t even know if they’re still alive,” he said.

After two years, the newly built houses in Aungmyinthar and Maliyang are also in poor condition. Residents say the two-storey structures, which were built from inexpensive wood and cement, are not durable and shake when gusts of wind blow. Toilet areas also lack deep holes for waste, raising sanitation concerns.

In their old villages, the farmers lived in houses with thatched roofs and bamboo walls. “We lived in traditional Kachin houses, which were cool and very comfortable, with enough space to relax,” said Mong Rein La. “Here, the houses are so closed off and dirty.”

The homes in the new villages were not built in traditional Kachin style, although a Kachin cultural house stands at the village entrance as a symbol.

The farmers say that although they were offered some compensation, the Chinese company did not give them a choice of whether they wanted to relocate.

“I stay here whether I’m happy or not,” said an 84-year-old Kachin man from Padan Kwin.

Zaw Nan, a 40-year-old from Myitsone village, said he could not earn enough money to support his children’s education. “I’ve lost much of the plantation I used to support my family,” he said. “I can’t grow certain crops or breed animals here.”

Khun Taung, who moved from Tangphre in March 2011, said her family did not receive the compensation money because they only left their old homes when they were forced out.

As a form of support, CPI provides rice for residents in the new villages. However, residents say the Chinese company has taken no responsibility to repair their damaged and flimsy homes, despite promising to take care of upkeep for five years.

Six months ago, CPI officials visited Aungmyinthar and the residents asked for help with repairs.

“The door isn’t well built, the floor cement in the kitchen is very thin, and termites are inside them,” said Khun Taung, pointing at the post of her house. “But they said the houses were fine and they had no plan to support [repairs].”

Grocers who commute back to their stores near the dam project say business has dried up, and they now rely on domestic tourists who come to see the Mali River.

Although the dam project is suspended, Chinese investors have reportedly approached Burmese politicians, civil society leaders and local Kachin residents recently to push for the right to resume construction.

Many residents told The Irrawaddy they did not want the project to continue and still hoped to return to their original villages.

“If the dam project continues, it will affect all of Burma, not only us,” said Mong Rein La. “But it gives us relief to know that people all over the country are on our side.”

“My village, Laphwae, is not what it once was for us,” he continued, using the local name for Padan Kwin village. “The landscape has been reshaped with bulldozers. It [the project] has already destroyed our highlights and sterilized our farmland.”