The Fight over the Marble Hills of Myanmar

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Marble hills

Faces coated in white dust and chisels in hand, Myanmar’s marble sculptors say the hills that have given them a livelihood for decades are vanishing, as big corporations reap the benefits of the precious white rock.

The deafening sound of cutting and grinding machines, punctuated by hammer and chisel banging, echoes across the hills next to the village of Sagyin, north of Mandalay.

The mounds, filled with jagged edges from where large pieces were hewn, are the prime source of white marble in the country-coveted as far back as 19th century King Mindon Min ‘s reign.

Ko Lay, his wife and their four children have earned about $360 (S$491) for each image of an elephant, lion or tiger carved a niche for themselves as the go-to animal sculptors.

As he fashions the haunch of a three-meter-tall feline that will guard the entrance to a Buddhist pagoda one day, he explains how vital the hills are for everyone living in their shadow.

The whole village depends on them, but we’re afraid they’ll soon vanish, according to a 48-year-old tells AFP, his entire body whitened with dust. As others here, he points his finger at mysterious Chinese and military-linked businesses, which under the previous government were given decades-long licenses over swathes of property.

Locals have always treated the marble-rich slopes as their own and suspect the outsiders of using explosives and excavating equipment to loot their wealth.

They want their mountains back says Ko Lay.

Approximately 80 percent of the village of some 2,000 households work in the marble industry, but people are afraid they will be forced out. The major corporations are going to “kill the hills until they’re gone,” added by Soe Win

Nyunt Wai has not learned of the leases and is doubtful that in the immediate future local residents will see dividends. From his parents and grandparents at the age of 14, he learned to work with marble and built up a clientele as far as Vietnam , Indonesia and Australia.

Now aged 61, Taking a break from delicately etching long eyelashes on a Buddhist marble monk ‘s forehead, he describes how companies are driving up the price of raw materials, blocking locals. “Blood streams through these hills through the village, but he was worried about future generations.” He added.

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