Burma’s Small-Scale Oil Barons Get Their Hands Dirty

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Waist-deep in pits of crude oil, longyi-clad roughnecks burrow a living from black gold in the most improbable of landscapes. Ko Min, 26, manually extracts the viscous liquid from his three 300-foot-deep wells in Minhla township, Magwe district, where a forest of tents cover small-scale mining operations in this bleak corner of west-central Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

British colonizers first discovered oil here in the 19th century; but after the wells were abandoned, resourceful locals moved in to reap the glistening rewards. While some claim to have become millionaires from their labors, Ko Min still has a long way to go. Nevertheless, the $30 he makes on average each day goes a long way in a country where an estimated quarter of the 50-million population subsist on less than a dollar a day.

Sandwiched between India and Thailand, this Southeast Asia nation boasts abundant natural resources that lie largely untapped, a corollary of Western economic sanctions brought in to shackle the brutal military dictatorship that ruled for half a century. But since a quasi-democratic government was elected in 2010, albeit staffed by familiar faces from the former junta regime, the floodgates have opened and energy giants such as BP and Shell descended on Rangoon, the largest city, to sniff out investment opportunities.

In August, Thai state-owned firm PTT Exploration & Production successfully unearthed gas in the Bay of Bengal off Burma’s western coast. And just last month, the Shwe gas pipeline, carrying oil and gas more than 1,600 miles (2,500 kilometers) from western Burma to southwest China, began flowing.

But despite the arrival of the booming multinationals, opportunities remain for individuals like Ko Min, who bought rights to use his wells for around $1,000 from the farmer who owns the land. Although lucrative, the techniques used — buckets, hand-pulleys, brute force — are primitive and dangerous.

Sinewy men winch containers from the dank earth, fill barrels with buckets, and then roll them onto trucks to be transported to small-scale refineries. Labor here is not for the faint-hearted; accidents are common. Nevertheless, in a country where the slightest opportunity cannot be squandered, business is booming.  — Charlie Campbell

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