A vast forested area covering about a quarter of Tanintharyi Region is the focus of disagreement between those who want to conserve it, and present and former residents for whom it is home.
By SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER
Photos STEVE TICKNER
THE FORESTED hills of Tanintharyi Region seem to roll on forever; except where they have been cleared for villages and palm oil, or for rubber and areca nut plantations, all which appear on the horizon in different shades of green.
Tanintharyi has the largest remaining intact areas of low-elevation evergreen forests in Southeast Asia, says the Conservation Alliance for Thanawthari, a coalition of seven Karen community groups that are concerned about the human impact of government plans for the region.
Moves to declare two proposed national parks in Tanintharyi as protected areas have caused anxiety among about 16,650 villagers living within their designated boundaries, most of whom grow areca palms or practice shifting cultivation to make a living.
The moves have also created concern among more than 16,000 villagers who fled the area because of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Union in the 1990s and want to eventually be able to return to their homes.
Under the 1994 Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, land declared “protected areas” is reserved exclusively for conservation and biodiversity protection.
The Tanintharyi and Lenya national parks were proposed by the military junta in 2002, and cover a total of more than 526,000 hectares (1.3 million acres). U Win Naing Thaw, director of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said the process had been delayed because of fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups.
The proposed Lenya National Park, in southern Tanintharyi’s Bokpyin Township, covers more than 283,000ha (700,000 acres) between the east bank of the Lenya River and the Thai border. There are 10 villages in the affected area, which has a population of about 2,470, most of whom are Karen but also including Myeik, Bamar, Mon and Rakhine. Another three villages are just outside the affected area.
The proposed Tanintharyi National Park, in Tanintharyi Township, covers more than 259,000ha (640,000 acres) and is contiguous with the Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand.
It has 42 villages with 14,181 residents, most of whom are Karen. Heavy fighting in the area between the Tatmadaw and the KNU destroyed 26 of the villages, which have been rebuilt.
Decades of conflict between the Tatmadaw and the KNU until they signed a bilateral ceasefire in 2012 displaced about 80,000 people in Tanintharyi, most of whom sought refuge in Thailand and live in camps along the border. Some refugees have returned since the ceasefire was signed; a few have settled in their former communities.
The government plans to link the two proposed national parks with the Tanintharyi Nature Corridor, proposed in 2004 but also yet to be established. Together with the existing 170,000ha Tanintharyi Nature Reserve along the route of the gas pipelines between Myanmar and Thailand, the total area covered would be about 1.01 million ha (2.5 million acres), or about a quarter of Tanintharyi’s 4.33 million hectares.
The CAT says the protected area proposals were made without the free prior and informed consent of the communities that would be directly affected.
“Many still have little or no knowledge of the proposals that stand to extinguish their access to resources and land,” the alliance says in its recent 38-page report, Our Forest, Our Life: Protected areas in Tanintharyi Region must respect the lives of indigenous peoples.
CAT added that the creation of large protected areas under central government control in disputed territory undermined the terms of the “interim arrangements” in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and threatened an already fragile ceasefire in the region.
The biggest concern of most villagers in the affected areas is losing the right to live on or access land they consider their own.
Most villagers say they have land ownership documents issued by either the government or the KNU. They say government officials charged K5,000 to survey their land but the KNU would accept K4,000.
On February 11, CAT organised a meeting for about 50 villagers from the affected areas to gather at Chaung Sone, a village in the proposed Lenya National Park, to discuss their concerns.
Among them was U Thein Myint, 48, from Yadanaw Pon village, who about 20 years ago established a nine-hectare (20-acre) areca palm plantation, from which betel nut is harvested. Some of his neighbours have been farming in the area for even longer.
Thein Myint says his plantation produces about 2,445 kilograms of areca nuts a year, from which he earns about K3 million to support his family.
“We rely on the areca nut plantation for a living,” he told Frontier. “If the park is going to be implemented, we have worries of our livelihood and about the future for our children, too. This just cannot happen because it will make life impossible for us.”
Thein Myint said he was told by Forest Department officials in January that the plantations were illegal because they were inside the designated area of the national park.
He said villagers were told they were banned from growing areca palms and that they would be required to plant hard wood trees, such as pyinkado or mahogany, at a rate of 150 to the acre, but this was yet to happen.
“But to do as they said, our [areca nut] plantation will be ruined,” he said.
He said there was confusion over the legal implications of declaring the proposed national parks as protected areas, adding that the government had never formally discussed its plans with affected villagers.
Thein Myint said villagers in the affected areas had been issued with Form 7 land ownership documents during the previous Union Solidarity and Development Party government, but they had been deemed illegal by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
Thein Myint said the government did not want villagers to clear more of the forest for plantations. “We just want the government to recognise our working land to be legal,” he said.
Plan in progress
Win Naing Thaw from the environmental ministry told Frontier in mid-February that no timeframe had been set for implementing the protected areas decision.
Asked about the implications of the decision for people living in the affected forests, he declined to respond and requested that questions be submitted by email. Frontier sent an email on February 16, and Win Naing Thaw said he needed to consult with local authorities, including the forest department, before he could answer. He did not respond before deadline.
Saw Sithu Lin, 33, a joint secretary of the KNU in Bokpyin Township, lives in Yonetaw village, an area within the proposed Lenya National Park.
He has an areca plantation on a 15-acre plot he has been farming since he was young. Sithu Lin worries about where he will live and how he will support himself if he is denied access to his land, the ownership documents for which were provided by the KNU.
Sithu Lin said the KNU township administrator, Saw Sae Gae, had been trying to convince government officials not to proceed with the plan for the two national parks. So, too, has CAT.
In December last year, a CAT delegation travelled to Nay Pyi Taw for a meeting with Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win.
The group included Naw Pee Tha Law, an adviser to Tarkapaw Youth Group, one of the seven members of the alliance, who said the minister was asked to reconsider the plan because of the implications for indigenous people in the affected areas as well as IDPs returning from camps in Thailand if their access to the forests is denied.
She quoted the minister as saying the plan would go ahead but consideration would be given to people living in the affected areas.
“That was what most satisfied me,” Pee Tha Law said, adding that while it was important to preserve the environment, it was also important to protect the rights of indigenous people living in the affected areas.
The CAT report makes six recommendations, including calling for a moratorium on establishing the Lenya and Tanintharyi national parks and any other proposals for protected area expansion in Karen areas of Tanintharyi Region. It says the moratorium should remain in effect until four conditions are met, including a “full peace agreement” between the KNU and the government and the 1994 Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Natural Areas Law is amended to recognise the customary rights of indigenous communities.
The report calls on the Forest Department and international conservation NGOs to recognise and support the efforts of indigenous communities to conserve and manage forests through the creation of Indigenous Community Conservation Areas.
CAT also recommends that interim measures be enforced to prevent the continued expansion of agribusiness, industrial and mining projects into indigenous areas and that the proposed protected areas must not move forward without the free, prior and informed consent of local communities.
Another recommendation is that land formerly occupied by refugees and IDPs must not be designated as new protected areas until their voluntary return in safety and dignity.
CAT believes an alternative approach is needed by the government and conservation NGOs to conservation in Tanintharyi.
“Promoting an outdated model of top-down protected areas that violate indigenous rights and exclude local communities, will inevitably also fail to protect the forest,” it said.