Myanmar is rich in natural resources, but much of this remains untapped. Political sanctions imposed by the military regime that ruled the country for 50 years kept off foreign investment, hindering the modernization of the oil and gas industry. With the big players out of the scene, enterprising locals are raking in the profits by utilizing crude equipment and manual labour consisting of thousands of workers.
To drill a well, workers first set up a tripod of bamboo poles or tree trunks 40 or 50 feet high with a pulley affixed at the top to lower a drilling tool into the earth. Workers then spend hours pounding the tool into the earth to reach the oil before hauling it out with a hand crank. Despite the hard work and inefficient drilling rigs, independent drillers are pumping up up to 300 barrels of crude oil a day, worth $3,000, which is sold off to local refineries. The profits have sparked an oil rush akin to the one that happened in America more than a hundred years ago.
Drilling is expensive and a costly gamble. Land costs about $4,000 an acre, and drills are $2,000. Permits must be purchased from the local refineries and their prices vary, but it’s the bribing of the officials that’s really expensive. Most drillers pool their resources to pay the bills and share their profits. Many start out drilling by hand until they can afford a generator and engine.
The oil fields are unregulated and in some cases, drillers are operating illegally, and competition over oil claims has led to violence, including knife fights between rival drillers.
But the country's artisanal wells won’t last long. With the end of the military rule in 2011, Burma has opened up and many onshore blocks are now being offered to foreign and local firms looking to cash in on the nation's great oil and gas reserves. Local drillers will soon be swallowed up by multinational energy corporations, and it's unlikely their interests will be protected.
Ko Min, 26, manually extracts oil from one of three 300 feet deep wells he works on in the Minhla township of the Magwe district October 27, 2013. Everyday, Ko Min makes around $30 extracting crude oil from three small wells after he bought rights to use them for close to $1000 from a farmer who owns the land.
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