MOGOK, Mandalay Division — Krishna took a mid-day break from his long and arduous shift digging for rubies in the vast San Taw Win mine in central Burma’s Mogok. A descendant of Gurkha soldiers, born in Burma and now in his 50s, Krishna said the work is hard but he holds out hope of landing that one giant gem that would make him rich.
“Looking out for high-quality rubies is my only purpose in my life as a miner,” he said, sitting on the sidelines of the gaping hole where he spends much of his time.
Located about 202 kilometers (126 miles) north of Mandalay city, Mogok is a rich valley known the world over for its fine rubies and other gems such as sapphire, lapis lazuli and moonstone. The area is peppered with dozens of varieties of other semi-precious stones, but some said the deposits are noticeably thinning.
Locals have mined the area by hand since the British colonial era, setting up modest mining operations and marketing some of the world’s finest gems on their own. Those small businesses began winding down around 1988, when the then-ruling military junta offered up large-scale mining concessions and forbid small, independent digging.
But while joint venture mining firms have been striking it rich, locals said they got a rough deal. After two decades of large-scale mining, many said, they have seen severe environmental and health impacts, a decline in local employment opportunities and a shortage of the finest quality stones that they once found in abundance.
“I haven’t seen any of the best quality rubies here recently,” Krishna said, sitting down on a mid-day break to speak with The Irrawaddy. “I’ve been working here for 25 years. I received 1 million kyats (US$1,000) for gems I found in the last 20 years, but now, I earn very little.”
The San Taw Win mine, where Krishna now works, is one of Mogok’s biggest at more than 10 acres across several villages. Their plots are known especially for their richness in rubies and sapphire. Hard work is incentivized with a 20 percent commission for those who find the finest products. This often accounts for their entire salary in lieu of daily wages.
The downside to this payment scheme, a site manager admitted, was that the mine is no longer producing much high-quality material.
“We hire and pay them a percentage of the value,” said Htet Aung Naing, manager of San Taw Win’s Le Oo site. “If they find precious stones by working hard, they will earn a lot of money. But recently we’re not finding fine rubies and sapphires here.”
Htet Aung Naing explained that the site is still producing a lot of material, but none of it matches the quality of the stones they found in the past. Other nearby mines, he said, are facing the same difficulty, after paying enormous license fees to the government that grant them the rights to explore for three years. Htet Aung Naing said that San Taw Win paid 15 million kyat for a license on the 5-acre plot he oversees, while some companies paid up to 300 million.
About 10 miles down the road is another mine near Chaung Gyi village, where Zaw Win has been overseeing operations for the last five years. He said that during that time, his deposits have also proven barren, and with the costs of operations he worries that his company will not even be able to work through their contract.
“We’re using eight to 10 barrels of oil per day to power our generators,” he said, explaining that the site requires a lot of energy for pumping water so the drills can operate. A single barrel of oil costs him about $120, he said. Beyond the operational expenses and licensing fees, he also pays taxes up to 20 percent for all of the extracted goods.
“Finding gemstones totally depends on our luck,” he said, “so whatever we spend every day, if we don’t have good luck we won’t make that money back.”
‘It Depends on Our Luck’
Gem mines in Mogok are usually one of two kinds: Myay Twin (mud hole) and Ge Twin (rock hole). But there is a third place left for gem-seekers.
Zaw Naing, 51, sifts through waste water to pick out small stones flushed out of company equipment. He said it is common for hand-pickers like him to have an informal agreement with site managers, and there is even a word for the job—Khanwe Saychin, roughly, man who collects stones by sifting.
He said that on some days he can find up to $10 worth of pebbles.
“Some people get rich by collecting these stones in the water. The owners allow us to pick, it just depends on our luck,” he said while sifting through a pan of water for bits of valuable waste. “I hope I will get rich someday.”
Those who get lucky take their wares to the local gem market, called Hta Pwe, which translates to ‘a plate for showing.’ Hordes of traders rush in around noon every day, and are usually out by about 3pm. Traders either rent or buy a chair and an umbrella, under which they smooth-talk prospective clients. Many at the market also observed a drought in the finest quality products.
Mining firms auction off the assets within their plots to competitive traders, said local buyer Phyu Phyu Myit, who then take them to market to turn them around again. She said the business is becoming risky because traders no longer know what to expect from a given deposit; if a trader makes a deal with a miner, he or she could be stuck with imperfect goods or less valuable types of stone. Like the mine owners, like the day laborers, and like the hand-pickers, Phyu Phyu Myint turned a familiar phrase: “It depends on luck.”
Mining in Mogok is posing more than just financial risks, activists said. Soe Myint, chairman of local conservation group Mogok Sein Lan, told The Irrawaddy that mining waste is among their chief concerns.
“There are a lot of big holes around town, and gem miners throw heaps of soil in piles near residential areas,” he said. While locals are not yet sure what types of health risks such waste could lead to, they are sure in their belief that the changing landscape could cause danger. While many fear long-term environmental effects, in the immediate future locals are worried about landslides.
The combined risks of large-scale mining operations in Mogok have made the area unlivable for many locals. Mogok Sein Lan said that a huge percentage of the area’s population—which is now around 166,000 according to the 2014 census—has left over the past decade. Working on corporate mines is rarely as profitable as locals had initially hoped, and they are no longer permitted to run their own small, independent mining projects. Coupled with the possibility of landslides or work-related accidents, some 135,000 people from Mogok were believed to have sought work elsewhere.
Some stand strong, however, in hopes that the ground is still hiding the elusive treasures.
“I dream that I will be rich soon,” said Krishna. “I hope my luck will come.”