Thursday, September 21, 2017

Where crops once grew near Monywa, now copper is extracted

Ma Aye Aye demonstrates the process of extracting copper from ponds at a mine site near Monywa in 2008. Minh Zaw / The Myanmar TimesMa Aye Aye demonstrates the process of extracting copper from ponds at a mine site near Monywa in 2008. Minh Zaw / The Myanmar Times

About this article:
This article was rejected for publication from the August 11, 2008 edition of The Myanmar Times by Press Scrutiny and Registration Division..

The smooth graded road is lined by a metre-high earthen wall planted with young eucalypts. These trees – the only greenery for hundreds of metres in every direction – provide neither respite from the heat nor a barrier to hide the scene of desolation around us.

The wall of the Monywa copper mine looms over the barren landscape, where locals walk across tailings dotted with mounds of soil, pools of water and small shacks. With no trees in this area the heat of the midday sun is almost overpowering. Ma Aye Aye – her face covered by the shade from her wide-brimmed bamboo hat – squats beside one of the small ponds. This clearly isn’t drinking water. The pond, about 3 metres long by 1.5m wide, is filled with empty cans bought from the local teashop that have begun to disintegrate, leaving behind a purple element: copper.

Many of the people here were farmers who cultivated the land before the mine began operating almost 25 years ago, says Ko Tin Maung.

“This was our land,” he says, pointing to the clusters of huts and mounds of dirt, “where we grew our crops that we sold in the city.”

“After the mine opened, the tailings mixed with the chemical they used to get the copper were spread over our land. Nothing would grow, the farmers could not cultivate paddy or other crops on the land anymore,” he says.

“Later, some smart old men who had knowledge of copper mines gave us the idea of how to get copper using the tailings and water. We soak empty condensed milk cans in ponds filled with water that has been mixed with the mine tailings,” he says. “To get the water for the ponds, people make their own pumps and then mix the groundwater with the tailings before filtering it.”

Ma Aye Aye says they collect the cans from teashops in Monwya, about 15 kilometres east, across the Chindwin River. Each pond contains more than 32 cans, weighing about one viss (1.6 kilograms), which are soaked for a month, changing the water twice each day.

There are ponds everywhere: More than 1000 people live in the tailings area, eking out a living from the copper they make. Each pond generates about K100,000 worth of copper – more than crop cultivation, admits Ko Tin Maung.