The Golden Land

 By Simonetta Sandri

It is named “The Golden Land”, may be due to the Mon, one of the first ethnic groups which migrated from the Western China to populate the Southeast Asian mainland called it so: Suvannabhumi; or, more likely, the name comes from its golden pagodas and the golden leaves gently placed on Buddha statues by the faithfuls. This is Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Eni has been present in four exploration blocks since 2014: two onshore and two offshore. We went to discover both the challenges and the peculiarities faced during the onshore seismic operations in block RSF-5. An interesting journey from which to learn…

In an article from Internazionale, dated January 2016, the communications expert Annamaria Testa recalled the words of Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, an independent centre of excellence mainly concentrates on the conservation of the buildings of the historical capital: “before Rangoon (Yangon since 1989), there was Shwedagon”. Shwedagon is an immense pagoda (or stupa in Sanskrit) with an impressive, shining golden dome dominating the Yangon Skyline. This 98-metre tall monument is located in the centre of a large group of temples, and is one of the most sacred monuments to the Burmese. It is a symbol of the enlightened mind, representing the body of Buddha. Instead, others argue that the 46-metre tall golden Sule pagoda in the centre of the city dates back even further than Shwedagon. Regardless of the chronology, which is also based on a legend, Myanmar is striking for the intense gold colour found everywhere, that same shade that coats the Buddha statues as a sign of devotion (small packages of golden leaves can be bought in the pagodas for just a few dollars, so that everyone can apply them to temples’ statues and walls).
Among the glitter of monuments and statues, the typical, coloured longyl dresses and the Myanmar people’s talent in working teak and padauk wood, we entered in this beautiful country with its stories and long-lost myths. Since 2014, Eni Myanmar took on a role in the new direction of the Burmese economy when acquired four exploration licenses, two onshore (blocks RSF-5 and PSC-K) and two offshore (blocks MD-02 and MD-04), and became an important energy player. The operational phase began in 2016 with gravimetric and aeromagnetic surveys in the onshore block PSC-K and 2D seismic acquisition in the offshore block MD-2. These first two activities did not require special interrelations or impact the territory; however, the 3D seismic acquisition onshore in block RSF-5 (mobilization in September 2016 and start of the activities in March 2017) required extensive planning and continuous contact and dialogue-based interaction with local authorities and communities, which obtain their daily sustenance from ancestral cultivations in the area. To perceive the implication of the project, it is enough to look at its “sizes”. The seismic acquisition is, in fact, the largest ever carried out in the country. On a total of 1,292 km² located in the heart of Myanmar 500 km north of Yangon, the acquisition area covers 500 km². It spans two regional municipalities (Magway and Myothit) and requires the deployment of about 700 workers for most of the year in a remote, water stress area with such extreme weather conditions to be nominee: the ‘dry zone’.

An acquisition of this size requires the temporary occupation of land for staff and laying recording equipment of about 60.7 km², 64,000 m² for the base camp (for the housing of workers and material storage) and 16,000 m² for explosive storage (used for the generation of seismic waves).

Onshore seismic
Onshore geophysical operations require the direct input of mechanical energy in the Earth in order to define the characteristics and geometry of the subsurface geology. There are several methods for generating seismic waves, but the most common energy sources used onshore are explosive charges placed in tiny wells drilled with portable augers or vibrators mounted on lorries. Geophones (small microphones placed in the soil) are receivers which are typically used to receive signals, collect the wave energy reflected by the subsurface layers and convert it into electrical impulses transmitted to a computer database in a recording vehicle. The recorded data are then processed and interpreted to provide an image of the subsurface geology.

Assuming to line up each single shot point along an imaginary seismic line we will cover a distance of 1,160 km, like from Milan to Reggio Calabria or from Yangon to Hanoi. There are about 20,000 landowners involved in the activity area which were identified with cadastral maps and land scouting, thanks to the patient and cooperative work of the permitting team and the authorities. Managing to get the locals understanding of the operations, without hurting, offending or forgetting anyone, was a great challenge in a land where time has frozen. It is worth to mention that there were other potentially critical elements of this challenge: Myanmar is a new country for Eni, the operations are limited to 6 months (November-May) due to the monsoon season, Eni was committed in the full and unconditional implementation of the sustainability business model and the respect for human rights (whereby it involved the Danish Institute for Human Rights to implement a human rights impact assessment specifically for the seismic acquisition of block RSF-5), the management of reputational risks and the need to promote HSE culture in a country where this issue needs significant strengthening. To face all these challenges, Eni Myanmar has adopted a series of operational tools which helped to breach the gap with the landowners involved in the project through information, transparency and direct contact. This was made possible thanks to the teams of supervisors and coordinators locally hired and trained by Eni Myanmar dedicated to the permitting activities with the main aims of monitoring the seismic contractor workers’ behaviour and ensure the correct application of Eni Myanmar directives, gather the complaints of the communities with the positive and collaborative spirit that distinguishes the Burmese, always respectful and smiling. Where possible, Eni contributed to local needs by improving the access roads to public services, donating water wells to communities, building fences in schools and installing solar panels to provide electricity to villages without access to energy. The public consultation phase with all the parties involved in the project (Stakeholders) proved to be essential for the success of each operation that required the prior permission to land access (land management): this approach has been recognized as a peculiar, sustainable model of Eni Myanmar and it favours a partnership for long-term activities.

No operational activities were carried out where an access permit had not been granted; additionally, the activities were planned based on the timing of seasonal crops in order to minimize the impact on the area’s economy. The meetings with the Chief Minister of Magway Region, administrators of the townships and the periodic meetings with all the various stakeholders have favoured the massive presence of Eni staff, its contractor workers and the equipment in the area to be adequately pre-announced and explained. The prior visit to the Municipal Office of the Department of Agriculture to agree on crop prices and productivities was paramount, also to determine compensation for any future damage caused by the explosive charges placed in small drilled borehole and/or by the access of heavy vibrators trucks designed to generate seismic waves. Once the compensatory measures were agreed, all the possible kind of informative material, from posters to brochures, were disseminated during the public consultations with the local communities, like the ones held in the villages of Sue Kauk San, Yone Taw or Aing Gyi Kone (in the overall 26 villages were involved), posted in the local newspapers and in public gathering places such as shops, schools and monasteries. This was all strictly carried out with our partner MOGE, Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, PSC concessionaire. Some of the frequent questions: how long do the operations last, how are they carried out, what compensation is envisaged for any temporarily occupied land that suffers damage. In areas predominantly planted with sesame, peanuts, brown sugar and peas, the concern was legitimate. The methodology adopted is characterized by the application of a formula, developed and agreed with the municipal authorities and presented during the consultations including only the direct payment to the involved owner. Finally the paid amount is determined by measuring the damage at the presence of the owners and formalizing these payments during the public ceremony at the villages. This procedure is quite unique in the country, and has never previously been applied by other operators. This created a moment for sharing, aggregation, dialogue and transparency on the process of compensation as agreed during the consultations.
In Myanmar ceremonies are a time for celebration and collective curiosity. When the bamboo houses with straw roofs are full of smiling people, the neighbours exchange sesame and honey cakes, and all around a chatting can be heard over the slowly flowing surrounding river, in the distance you can almost see the princess of Burmese fairy tales with her enchanted shawl…

SEE MORE: The jewel of the indian ocean by Marilia Cioni

about the author
Simonetta Sandri