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Thousands of farmers in central Burma’s Magway division are selling their land and cattle to join the region’s oil rush.
A huge settlement, home to 100,000 people, has been set up in the Htan Gang oil field, and families are earning much more money as small-time oil drillers, than they did as farmers.
The lucky ones can earn 30,000,000 kyat (US$30,000) in a week.
The noise of engines humming all day and night under the plastic roofs is a sign that the drilling is a 24-hour operation.
Just over a year ago, people in Htan Gang village worked the land, but now the place is filled with thousands of oil pits – bored by small-time investors
“About 90 percent of people here came and invested by selling their farms or cows,” said Thet Naing Win, an oil-pit investor.
Yin Htwe was a struggling farmer who moved his family to the oil field four months ago.
“Back home, if we could not get enough from the farm, we had nothing,” he said. “We had to sell our things to eat. There was no hope for the future. But here the situation is not bad, it’s worth working for.”
To make a little extra money, Yin Htwe’s wife, Daw Kyi, carries buckets of oil on her head from the wells.
“Back in the village, we earned about two thousand kyat [US$2] for a whole day’s work. But here, 30 minutes of carrying oil earns us four or five thousand kyat [US$4-US$5].”
It is a big gamble for the old farmers, who must sell their farms and cattle in order to invest in oil drilling.
An oil pit costs three million kyat (US$3,000) and there is extra costs for pipes, engines and digging fees.
But the expense and risk of not striking oil, is not putting off young people and the unemployed from joining the oil rush.
“I came here since my school is close by. I’ve opened a grocery shop and sell water to cover school expenses,” said student, Ko Soe.
The work is dangerous, and living conditions in the oil field are hot and dirty – there is little to no sanitation.
Land disputes between the government and land-owners in Htan Gang and other oil fields in the region, can turn violent.
“In 2006, authorities seized the lands and fired their guns. One person died and two were injured. If we can work without fear, I think we can find more money for our country, said Thet Naing Win.
Many drillers are like nomads – continually moving from oil-field to oil-field in search of a fortune. It means their children miss out on a regular education.
“For the children, it’s difficult to go to school,” said Yin Htwe. “We had to take our eldest daughter out of sixth grade. She could go to school when we were in our village, but when we decided to move here, we had to take her out.”
Many people who came to Htan Gang to make a lot of money quickly are now straddled with debts they cannot pay off.
But Yin Htwe said life in the oil field is better than back home.
“Now there are many oil pits, we are losing hope. But this is better than the place we came from so, we will keep digging here,” he said.