Myanmar – a land of oysters
Myanmar has been farming oysters for their pearls and shells for centuries in the crystal waters found around the 800 unspoiled islands of the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago. First it was the Salon people (also known as the Moken or sea gypsies) who, for generations, lived on and roamed the seas, using their free diving skills to farm for pearls - sometimes diving up to 20 metres to get them.
After the First Anglo-Myanmar war in 1824, British traders used the Salon people to farm the wild oysters. The British colonial government saw the potential of the pearl trade and issued licenses for pearling creating a new industry for the area. In the early 1900s the first forms of diving equipment were used to find the oysters which expanded the trade. Myeik became a boom town, attracting many pearling vessels. By the 1940s, there was a decline in the natural oyster stocks which ended the Mergui pearl trade.
In 1954 a Japanese entrepreneur, Kichiro Takashima, formed a joint venture with a local Myanmar company and started the first pearl farm off an island called Domel Island. The farm then moved to Sir J. Malcolm Island (now called Pearl Island) as it had better conditions for pearl cultivation.
Technicians from Japan successfully managed to seed the oysters, but kept their techniques secret from their Myanmar partners. The farm was nationalised in 1964 under the military dictatorship of U Ne Win. With the loss of the Japanese technical skills, the pearl industry went into decline again.
In the 1990s, the military relaxed the restrictions against foreign investment and foreign pearl companies began investing in Myanmar. The first to return was the well-known company Tasaki Shinju, renowned for the quality of their pearls. The Andaman Pearl Company from Thailand, and the Myanmar Atlantic Pearl company from Australia followed. The pearl industry in Myanmar gradually revived.
Now, the industry is facing another threat. With the opening up of Myanmar, many companies are looking to build hotels and expand tourism activity in the Myeik Archipelago which will increase pollution – threatening the pristine environment which the oysters need to thrive.