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Eastern wildcats

Myanmar’s development means the end of the DIY oil prospector

Foreign oil companies are lining up to tap resource-rich Myanmar’s undeveloped energy sector, with sanctions lifted and the government encouraging an investment “gold rush.” But transforming parts of the oil industry by introducing modern-day equipment could affect one unique group of workers: the independent prospectors who drill for crude by hand.

Thousands of workers in the country extract crude manually, or with simple machines, and sell it to refiners. The 26-year-old pictured above earns about $30 per day pumping oil from a 300-foot-deep well in central Myanmar.

Selling crude. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The area has attracted scores of people who live in communities and tap oil fields abandoned by the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. The work is dangerous, and operators say they’re often forced to bribe local officials to stay in business. Some reports say the lawless areas are also plagued by drugs, crime, and prostitution.

Extracting oil. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

It’s “likely the 11th hour” for such workers, John Dale, an anthropologist and Myanmar expert at George Mason University, told National Geographic. “It will be interesting to go back in six months and see if they are still there.”

Carrying water. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

For the workers’ sake, it seems modernization can’t come fast enough.

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