A man cranks a hand-powered oil well outside Minhla, a town in central Myanmar (map). Across Myanmar, independent drillers work tens of thousands of so-called artisanal oil pits using primitive and dangerous methods that date back to the 1800s. The workers sell the crude oil to local refiners, often to supplement their farming income. A day's grueling labor for some nets around $30, although others report much higher profits.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is rich in natural resources, yet it produces a minimal amount of crude oil. Until recently, political sanctions on the regime that ruled the country for nearly 50 year kept out much foreign investment, hindering the modernization of the oil and gas industry. In 2012, many of those sanctions were lifted in response to political and economic reforms. International energy companies are now eyeing Myanmar, and several have secured exploration and drilling rights both on land and offshore in locations many expect could be rich in natural gas.
John Dale, an anthropologist at George Mason University who studies Myanmar, said this is "likely the 11th hour" for independent oil drillers. As foreign companies bring modern technology to Myanmar, Dale said he expects independent operators to be pushed off their claims. "It will be interesting to go back in six months and see if they are still there," Dale said. (See related photos: "Scavenging for Charcoal Fuel in the Rubbish of Manila.")
This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.