Hunting for particles of gold in the jungles of Southeast Asia

Artisanal prospectors in Myanmar ply a gruelling trade that experts say may vanish in a generation as the world’s gold strikes shrink.

By Paul Salopek
Published 29 Jun 2020, 09:26 BST
Do Toe, left, and Than Ngwe prospect for crumbs of gold along the Chindwin River in ...
Do Toe, left, and Than Ngwe prospect for crumbs of gold along the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar. The husband-and-wife team earns about three dollars a day.
Photograph by Paul Salopek
Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from Myanmar.

Walking across the world, you encounter human beings engaged in various repetitive behaviours. Raising babies. Fixing machines. Boiling tea. Planting crops. Posting videos on TikTok. Looking for gold.

Our species’ pervasive quest for gold is ancient and tireless.

Gold panned by a prospector on the Chindwin River adds a dusting of colour.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Along my 11,000-mile trail out of Africa, I have met modern-day miners blasting apart a Bronze Age gold mine—a rare, 5,400-year-old archaeological site—to squeeze the last dregs of metal from the hills of the Caucasus nation of Georgia. I have stumbled across a tribe of nomadic prospectors sifting glimmers of placer from the wild mountains of Pakistan. And lately, in Myanmar, I met a middle-aged couple, Than Ngwe and Do Toe, washing tons of river gravel by hand in the hunt for specks of shining colour. (Watch artisanal gold miners at work in Myanmar.)

“I’m a fisherman most of the time,” Than Ngwe, the husband, said. “This is just for earning more for food.”

“We are poor. We have six children,” added Do Toe, the wife. “The gold trader sometimes gives us an advance in rice, when we run out of money.”

Their reward for a typical day of backbreaking labor along the muggy banks of the Chindwin River? A few grains of metal worth perhaps 5,000 kyats, or about three dollars.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is not an El Dorado—a major source of gold. (Today, China takes first prize in global production.) Industrial mines do exist. But much of the country’s gold is extracted arduously, in ant-like quantities, by destitute armies of low-tech prospectors. They use wooden sluices carpeted with hanks of artificial turf to trap particles of treasure. Such technology has not changed for thousands of years. It is alluded to in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, where a ram’s fleece served much the same purpose.

The gold hunters of Myanmar sort themselves into two groups: kone-myaw means “washing on land,” which involves pit mining, and ye-myaw means “washing in the river.” The work is often seasonal. The job is migratory. Prospectors face all the usual environmental hazards of gold mining, principally exposure to mercury. A study in 2015 found that Burmese gold miners carried more than twice the background levels of mercury—the highly toxic heavy metal used to amalgamate gold—in their systems. It also warned that heavy metal pollution from gold mining is poisoning the waters and fish of rivers such as the Chindwin.

Gold sparkles almost everywhere in the landscapes of Myanmar.

In Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, the Shwedagon Pagoda is said to be sheathed with up to 60 tonnes of gold.

Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library, Nat Geo Image Collection

It shines on the gilded spires on Buddhist stupas and temples that jut above even the smaller towns and villages. In the commercial capital, Yangon, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is said to be sheathed with up to 60 tonnes of yellow metal, more than the country’s strategic reserve. "The Shwe Dagon," Somerset Maugham wrote in 1930, "rose superb, glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul."

I hiked east from the banks of the Chindwin River.

In a dense tropical forest, along a muddy track without traffic, I paused at a commercial establishment of a sort I had never seen at any location so utterly remote. A diesel generator drummed. The empty bar served cold drinks and offered a two-page menu. Shelves sagged under exotic merchandise: Jumbo Vape mosquito repellent, Triple 9 batteries, Super Glue, button-down dress shirts wrapped in cellophane, Lux fingernail polish, Squeeze energy drink, High Class whiskey, bags of lentils, Klasor underwear, and hundreds of other items that Than Ngwe and Do Toe, the married river prospectors, couldn’t afford. This cornucopia was the last relic of a gold boomtown.

“The gold rush happened three years ago,” said Hnin Maung, a prospector who still hung around the bar. “Between 400 and 500 people came and made a new village. Then the gold finished.” The bamboo huts of the miners had crumbled to frass. The bar owner hoped to liquidate his stock with passing truckers.

A sturdy man of about 40, Maung said he too would move on.

In fact, there wasn’t much “hope in the dark night of the soul" left for gold mining, and not just in Myanmar, but anywhere. By expert accounts, the planet is running out of accessible gold. Major discoveries have been dwindling for decades, geologists say. The entire industry may collapse within 20 years. After that, it’s all recycling.

I wished Maung luck. And I set out for Mandalay, carrying my own share in his doomed burden of sweat: the 1/35th of a gram of gold circuitry in my cell phone.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.
Paul Salopek won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.

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