Burma goes for coal - but at what cost in pollution, disease and land grabs?

Tigyit coal mine. Photo: Carole Oudot / Matthieu Baudey.
Tigyit coal mine. Photo: Carole Oudot / Matthieu Baudey.
The president of Burma has decided that coal is the way to future wealth and prosperity, write Carole Oudot & Matthieu Baudey. But if the experiences of farmers and village people near Tigyit, site of the country's biggest coal mine and coal-fired power plant is anything to go by, it will bring only poverty, pollution, ill-health and land grabs to rural communities across the country.
And the smoke! We can't sleep at night because wind carries dust and smoke in our houses, we have to sleep wearing a mask. Also every day at around 4pm we hear explosions so loud that our houses shake!

For all its troubles in recent years, Burma (Myanmar) is a country with an enviably low dependence on coal.

It currently has only three coal-fired power plants that generate just 3% of the nation's electricity, with most of the power coming from hydroelectric dams.

But that's all about to change. President U Thein Sein is convinced electricity from coal-fired plants represents the energy future of the country, and at least a dozen new coal-fired power plants are planned to generate a third of the country's power by 2030.

Burma owns about sixteen coal deposits throughout the country. And the biggest of them, Tigyit coal mine open pit, in Shan State, show that any increase in coal mining and power generation is only going to bring conflict, disease and destruction to the country, already the poorest in the region.

Discovered in 1989, the Tigyit coal deposit is composed of 'brown coal' or lignite, high in ash and sulphur, but low in thermal energy, making it a highly polluting energy source. Nearby lies the Tigyit power plant, currently the nation's largest, although small by international standards with two 60MW generation units, which gets its coal from the Tigyit mine.

It was forced to close in 2014 due to a series of mechanical breakdowns. But in February 2016, it will start up once again. Over 10,000 local people, most of them farmers, are already suffering from the harsh impacts of coal mining. Now they fear a further deterioration in their living conditions as fumes and ash from the plant begin to contaminate the air and surroundings once again.

And the impacts will be severe: dating from 2002, the power plant was built cheaply, without the filtering technology that would be required in most other countries to reduce emissions of ash and sulphur. When it was running some 150 tonnes daily of fly ash were being emitted from its chimneys to settle over local villages and farmland, bringing a toxic fallout of mercury, arsenic, cadmium and other heacy metal pollutants.

China to the rescue of dirty power

Since the 2014 closure of the Tingyit power plant the Burmese government has been keen to get the plant running again. In summer 2015 negotiations got under way with potential foreign investors, according to Pa-Oh ethnic activist Ko Kham Tee: "A Canadian and a Japanese company were interested in taking over the plant. But finally after some market research they decided not to go through with it."

But now Chinese capital is coming to the power plant's rescue, in the form of the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation (CHMC) - which is to refurbish and operate the coal-fired power-plant. We contacted CHMC to ask about their plans to mitigate its environmental impacts but it ignored our interview request.

According to Ko Kham Tee, local officials and residents are already being bribed and bullied into silence in order to prevent any complaints from emerging when operation recommences. This is not difficult, he adds, due to the legacy of fear from the days of formal military rule: even if the military officially renounced their power in 2012, they are still running things in the country.

"The villagers are still scared of the military anyway", says Ko Kham Tee adds. So when they "come and 'prepare the community' for the company's arrival", that's enough to quell dissent.

Situation worsened for the villagers

Although the power plant is currently inactive, coal mining at Tigyit continues, producing around 2,000 tones of coal a day, most of it transported to another nearby power plant. And that volume is now set to increase, says Ko: "Once the power-plant runs again, they will expand the digging in the coal mine."

The mine has been a source of local problems ever since it opened in 2002 - noisy, dusty and a source of heavy fumes from diesel-powered mining machinery. The village pagoda even collapsed a few years ago, from the force of explosions coming from the open pit. The Buddhist temple was never rebuilt despite promises made by the company.

"And the smoke!" a farmer exclaims. "We can't sleep at night because wind carries dust and smoke in our houses, we have to sleep wearing a mask. Also every day at around 4pm we hear explosions so loud that our houses shake!"

In 2011, the Pa-Oh activists published a report, 'Poison Clouds' to denounce the situation, as reported on The Ecologist, however no improvements followed. Indeed, the chief of Tigyit village explains, living conditions actually worsened, while respiratory diseases, heart conditions or declining eyesight are becoming common.

"Twenty-one pregnant women lost their children since the excavation started", he told us. A 62-year old woman who was also present added: "I have to take all these pills each week", as she held a big plastic bag full of medicines up. Her neighbor, a woman aged 36, said she was suffering from asthma and chronic fatigue syndrome, and has to spend 120.000 kyats (around $120) per month on medicines.

According to the village chief, local medical staff are paid to keep quiet about the mine's health impacts: "The company gives money to the doctors, nurses and the whole staff of the closest hospital. This way they stay quiet. But they know. Because the workers also suffer from respiratory diseases and they have to cure them."

"I went to the hospital and the doctor said I should not breathe this poisonous smoke", the older woman says. "How am I not supposed to breathe the air? I would like to leave, here, I feel sick every day."

Land grabs for workers and power plant

When the excavation started, the company brought its own workers of Burman ethnicity, rather than employ local Pa-Oh workers, says the chief: "They confiscated lots of lands around the site and inside the village and gave some plots to the workers."

A villager adds: "The place where the power-plant is located used to be our farming lands." He told us that a total of 500 acres were confiscated from five different villages, including Tigyit, the closest one, in addition to another 2,000 acres of uncultivated land. Entire villages were displaced, further in the mountains where there is less cultivable land, forcing most of the young people out to seek work in Thailand.

Because of land confiscation, the villagers struggle to eat and feed their animals, which are also sick. "The pigs give birth to dead piglets and the buffaloes suddenly drop dead", the chief's wife explained.

"The authorities want to weaken the local people because they think the village is too close to the mine", says Ko Kham Tee. "So they seize the land, they parcel it out and they sell the smaller lands to other people, at a price the villagers couldn't afford."

Without enough land to cultivate, ailing livestock, respiratory diseases, premature babies and miscarriages, the situation is already unbearable for local inhabitants. The mine workers are also suffering, adds the village chief: "The workers don't want to lose their jobs but I don't think they know what they're doing or what they are exposed to. At least fifteen workers died already."

Yet the village is divided roughly into two equal camps, says the chief, those who support the mine because they depend on it for their jobs, and the local farmers for whom it brings nothing but grief - and the situation is often tense between the two. Nonetheless he is determined to maintain their resistance to the mine, and the re-opening of the power plant: "We plan to protest or even sue the company. We already collected the money to do so."

Whether he can make any impression on Burma's rulers or the powerful companies that are profiting from the land grabs and pollution remains to be seen. As for his chances of winning  justice in Burma's courts, that may also be an unlikely prospect in a country so recently emerged from absolute military rule.

Meanwhile conflicts such as these are set to be repeated elsewhere in the new 'democratic' Burma. If President U Thein Sein gets his way, the pollution, ill-health, poverty and misery now affecting Tigyit will only spread until the problems afflict the entire nation.

There is of course another way - to take advantage of the ever-falling costs of solar and wind power to increase the country's electrical generation capacity, while refurbishing its existing hydroelectric dams to work as 'pumped storage' batteries just as Norway is already doing.

We can only hope that Burma's leaders will see where a truly prosperous future lies - in clean, low cost renewable energy for all.



Carole Oudot & Matthieu Baudey are freelance journalists traveling around Myanmar and specialized in ethnic affairs and politics, mainly in Kayah and Shan States. Their work often appears on New Burma Chronicles.

Additional reporting by The Ecologist.

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