“I have to eat my lunch so late so that I will not be hungry again in the evening,” the woman herding cattle told me as she ate a simple meal of cooked rice, beans and chili. On a sunny day in June 2014, I took a trip to the Mt. Popa area to conduct my research on land confiscation caused by a pozzolan mining project. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano near Bagan in central Myanmar, best known as a pilgrimage site with many important Nat (spirit) temples and relic sites on the top of the mountain.
When I visited one of the villages where I was doing my research, I saw the old woman beside the road. The afternoon sun was beating down and the ground was hot. This skinny little woman was wearing a shabby old cloth on her head to protect her from the sunlight and holding a stick in her hand for herding her cattle. Behind her, I observed a wide expanse of mining area and the majestic Popa Mountain in the distance.
From our conversation, I learned that she is one of the many farmers who lost their land due to the pozzolan mining project. In 2004, the Ministry of Electricity No2 confiscated 246.2 acres of farmland belonging to local farmers in order to mine pozzolan powder. Pozzolan powder is a type of volcanic ash with high value used to enrich cement for the construction of dams in other parts of the country.
As she continued her meager lunch, I noticed her face was weathered and she appeared exhausted and very old. I was shocked when she told me that she is only fifty-two years old. Her wrinkles illustrate how tired she is and the hardships she has suffered. With sadness in her voice she told me her story. In the past, she was a land-owner who earned a living from farming. She was comfortable in her work and her family was happy at that time.
Since her land was confiscated, she has had to earn her livelihood from herding cattle. Her father is old and her husband is paralyzed and unable to work, which means that she is the only person in the family with an income. Moreover, her husband suffers from depression, in part, caused by his loss of self-reliance after his land was confiscated for the project. The cost of his medical treatment has created additional hardships for her. This poor woman has faced tremendous economic hardships due to this pozzolan mining project.
Both her appearance and her words expressed her impoverishment and her sadness. I could see that she has been exhausted for much of her life and I felt deep empathy for the hardships she has faced. Her story showed me how much pozzolan mining has affected her life and the lives of hundreds of people in this community.
Mt. Popa is an area of fertile agricultural land, and farming is the major source of income for the local communities. Land confiscation has caused loss of livelihoods for local farmers and it is pushing the communities into poverty. The short amount of time I spent with this woman reveals the widespread devastating impacts of pozzolan mining. This is just one of the many stories of 108 farmers who have lost their lands and livelihoods as a result of this project.
The Popa Lovers Association, a local community-based organization (CBO), and the Upper Myanmar Lawyers Council are currently working together with the affected communities to get fair compensation. Land confiscation without compensation is a serious problem in Myanmar both under the military and the current government. In the past, communities had no opportunity to fight for their rights. However, Myanmar is the process of reforming from military rule to democracy, which has provided communities and CBOs an opportunity to demand their rights. The new government needs to ensure that the affected communities do not continue to suffer and should help them to restore their livelihoods. The Myanmar government will not gain the trust of its citizens unless it takes positive action on this issue and other similar issues around the country. The Myanmar government needs to obey domestic law and respect people’s basic human rights, and in doing so, people like this woman will finally have access to justice.