The magazine of the art-form of the photo-essay
May 2016 back issue
Oil Rush Myanmar
by Arthur Nazaryan
A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous! Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
Oil has been drilled in Myanmar, originally by hand, as far back as the late 18th century. The first barrel was exported in 1953, making Myanmar one of the earliest oil producing countries in the world. Since then, the country’s onshore oil reserves, primarily situated in the central Irrawaddy river basin, have gone mostly untapped - largely because of decades of rule by a military dictatorship which nationalized the industry while discouraging both foreign and local drilling. But as a civilian government has come to power, some restrictions have been lifted, and among them is the one on independent oil drilling. As a result, an oil rush has kicked off, with hundreds of local speculators and laborers flocking to the oil fields along the Irrawaddy River in search of wealth. Once-quiet villages have become boom towns surrounded by fields of DIY oil rigs made of bamboo and metal, constantly bathed in the sound of the generators used to power the drills. Speculators must pay both the villagers whose land they want to drill on, as well as local authorities, before they can even begin drilling. And if they do strike oil, they better hope it’s not too much, because the government is still known confiscate any drill site they deem profitable enough. While the government has a massive refinery nearby, most of the privately drilled oil  is shipped about 300 kilometers north to Monywa division, where a cottage industry of makeshift refineries has popped up. These “oil cooking factories,” as they are referred to in Myanmar, essentially refine the oil be heating it with a wood-fired furnace. When the process is done, the oil is picked up by distributors who sell it all over the country, and the charcoal left over from the wood is sold by women at the local market.
Oil is siphoned from concrete holding cells, up to metal trays where it is refined through a heating process.
Sai Sai, 20, checks his phone while on break at an oil refinery in Jao Ga village. There are an estimated 60 furnaces refining oil in Jao Ga - while burning, they must be manned 24 hours a day.
Workers in Dagain village use a pipe to pump water out of the ground and hopefully strike oil underneath. A major obstacle for drillers is groundwater, which many do not have the resources or training to deal with.
The shadow of a worker at the Dagain oil fields is cast on a shallow puddle of oil.
Workers at a well in Dagain take a break for lunch while one of them remains on the hand-and-foot operated motor that helps them drill a new well.
Hundreds of workers flocked to Dagain in search of work and wealth in the oil fields there.
Workers help assemble oil rigs in Dagain village. Speculators must pay villagers a fee for each well they dig on their land - whether they find oil or not. Laborers here typically make about $350 per month.
A worker walks through the maze of tents at Dagain, where numerous wells have been set up in a free-for-all scramble to exploit the oil beneath.
A boy rides his bicycle around empty barrels at an oil refinery.
Swe Oo, 27, scrapes charcoal out of an oil refinery furnace. Afterwards, women sift through the remains for pieces suitable to sell at the market. Charcoal is still commonly used in Myanmar households for cooking fires.
A worker at a makeshift oil refinery in Myanmar balances on a metal beam over a vat of unrefined oil.
Myo Thet, 19, checks low-grade oil which is mixed with high concentration sulfuric acid to raise its quality. "The acid eats the flesh," says Myo Thet, whose hands have been visibly affected by the chemical.
A worker at a makeshift oil refinery compares the quality of two oil samples.
Chan Nyein, 19, pumps refined oil into barrels on a customer's truck. Each furnace refines about one thousand gallons of oil per day. Most of it is purchased by distribution companiesb which then sell it throughout country.
A worker at a makeshift oil refinery in northern Myanmar drags a hose that he just used to pump refined oil into the barrels on a customer's truck.
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