Gold Mining expands in Burma's Hugawng “Tiger Reserve”



Kachin environmentalists charge that the Yuzana Company has drastically stepped up its ecologically destructive practices in Kachin state's Hugawng (also Hukaung) Valley by expanding large scale gold mining in the environmentally sensitive area, officially known as the world's largest “Tiger Reserve”.

Since February, Yuzana has expanded gold mining operations along the Mogaung River, where the firm with the active support of local authorities has confiscated and destroyed farmland belonging to villagers. The land grabs have left of hundreds of families penniless and in serious shortage of food.

The current mining project poses further threats to the Hugawng Valley, as waste produced by its cyanide intensive gold operations contaminate the local soil and the area's water sources. Furthermore, intrusive mining operations cause soil disruption and riverbed erosion, which greatly affects the local ecosystem.

The Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), longtime critics of Yuzana's activities in the valley condemned what the group described as an increasingly deteriorating situation. “Local authorities have always said that this development is for the people, however as gold mining continues to expand in the area, the local people are suffering more and more,” KDNG’s Secretary told the Kachim News Group.

“The people in the Hugawng Valley have no legal regulation or sound administration; this is causing them to suffer, and their livelihood is being challenged,” the spokesman said.

According to reports from the area, local authorities have encouraged displaced farmers to make up for their loss of income by sifting through toxic mining waste. Sanpya Village headman Bahkyam Naw Di is reportedly charging hungry villagers for the privilege of dredging through the toxic soup left by Yuzana's large scale gold operations.

It has been claimed by local authorities and the firm itself that Yuzana's gold project is funding the expansion of a middle school in Sanpya Village, home to hundreds of families previously relocated to make way for Yuzana's large scale plantations in the valley. It remains unclear however how much money will actually go to the school, villagers say that the school lacks teaching materials and resources.

The Yuzanan company led by Htay Myint a close ally of retired General Than Shwe, is no stranger to controversy in the valley, where beginning in 2006 the firm with the support of Maj. Gen. Ohn Myint then northern military commander, expropriated thousands of acres from small scale farmers to make way for large scale sugar cane and tapioca plantations. Htay Myint and Ohn Myint were both elected to Burma's parliament in 2010.

According to researchers studying the ongoing ecological destruction of the valley since 2006 Yuzana has confiscated more than 200,000 acres of farmland from local residents to make way for the plantations.

Yuzana's mega farms employ few local people, instead using imported labor from Arakan state and the Irrawaddy delta. The outside workers are poorly paid and are said to frequently resort to stealing livestock from their new Kachin neighbors in order to survive.

Thousands of families were left homeless by the land seizures which resulted in little to no compensation for the vast majority of those displaced. These landless farmers were instead sent to live in Sanpya Village, where few have been able to find decent paying work to support their families.

World's largest Tiger reserve called a "fraud"

In 2001, Than Shwe’s military regime in collaboration with the US NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) officially created a large tiger reserve in the Hukawng Valley. In 2004 the Burmese regime with the public endorsement of WCS extended the tiger reserve’s total area to include the entire valley of 21,890 km sq, creating what has been claimed is the largest tiger reserve in the world.

Environmentalists and critics of the Burmese the regime have called the tiger reserve a complete sham, they point out that since 2004 the Burmese regime has actively encouraged large scale gold mining and monoculture plantation farming to take place in in much of the valley.

Critics such as KDNG argue that the tigers reserve’s key backer WCS’s former director of science and exploration, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, was incredibly naive to participate in the project from the beginning.

Rabinowitz who now works for Panthera, another intentional organization actively involved in the tiger reserve has according to his numerous critics completely ignored the concerns of the Kachin people and instead blatantly misrepresented the serious major environmental problems caused by Burmese government policy in the valley.

A recent interview that Rabinowitz gave with Agence France Press (AFP) in June infuriated Kachin environmentalists and social activists when the self-described “Indian Jones” of the tiger world blamed the local Kachin people for the decreased tiger population. According to his critics the AFP article is just the latest example of Rabinowitz attacking the Kachin residents of the valley for the decline of the tiger but ignoring logging, plantation farming and large scale gold mining that has been imposed on the valley by Burmese government officials and their cronies.

In his interview with AFP Rabinowitz summed up the situation in the Hugawng valley as follows "The tiger is still valuable and the indigenous people there such as the Lisu and the Kachin are very much tied into the Chinese trade, and they've been killing off tigers".

But it was his next claim that really upset Kachin activists, "You need law enforcement, protection and guards -- that's the number one thing," he told AFP.

The Kachin activists say that Rabinowitz if he really cared about the tigers would be calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin state during this time of war rather than demanding that representative of one of the world's most discredited police forces be sent to the area.

Few people from the Hukaung valley have anything positive to say about Rabinowtiz. “If he cares about the environment in the Hukawng valley why isn't he demanding that the Yuzana company stopped cutting trees, gold mining and seizing farmland” one frustrated Kachin activist from the Hugawng valley told Kachin News Group.

"Pushing local people of their land only encourages poaching" the activist continued.

Sources inside Burma tell KNG that WCS's most senior staff person in Burma Robert Tizard has had his access to the Hukawng valley significantly curtailed by Burma's government since fighting between the KIO and army began in 2011 something that the group is loath to admit publicly.

"WCS and Panthera keep sending money for the so called tiger reserve but their international staff can't even go there to monitor what's going, it’s a joke, this is fraud” said the activist.  She requested anonymity because of safety concerns citing WCS's involvement in an anti-poaching squad said to dress in camouflage and frequently harass the innocent Hugawng villagers including her family.