Sustainable landscapes, sustainable peace?
While peace and democracy have made advances in Myanmar over the last decade, Kachin state—home to 20% of the Ayeyarwady River Basin—remains blighted by conflict between the state military forces (the Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army.
A ‘resource curse’ is behind the persistent fighting. Kachin is blessed by abundant water, forests and minerals; these treasures are attracting the attention of business interests keen to exploit the lucrative state’s natural bounty, often in partnership with the Tatmadaw. Local people, hardened by years of conflict with the Burmese army, are struggling to keep control of these resources and fighting repeatedly flares.
WLE’s ‘Working together for a better Kachin landscape’ project is a partnership between local NGOs (the Shalom Foundation and Indo-Myanmar Conservation), British academic institutions (the London School of Economics and the University of East Anglia), and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Project researchers have formed bonds with local communities in Kachin state and with state and national parliamentarians in a bid to stimulate awareness and dialogue concerning the situation. By organising meetings and workshops with regional and national politicians, the project is linking citizens to the new democratic processes in Myanmar.
On November 10, at the 2016 Greater Mekong Forum in Bangkok, villagers and community workers from three parts of Kachin state presented their home areas and immediate concerns to an audience of regional researchers, donor representatives, journalists and policy makers.
The community representatives expressed concern about the illegal extraction of logs, jade and gold from the area and the effects this resource stripping is having on the environment; they also discussed the negative outcomes associated with the potential development of the 6 GW Myitsone hydropower project at the confluence of the Chindwin and Ayeyarwady Rivers. Many in Kachin State are worried that not only are they losing natural resources they have traditionally depended on for food, medicine and housing materials, but that even the land they live on and farm will be either seized or degraded to the point where it is no longer habitable.
A panel including members of the Kachin State Parliament and the Myanmar Federal Parliament discussed the concerns of residents and NGOs with forum representatives from other Mekong countries, asking for advice on how to deal with resource conflicts. The parliamentarians acknowledged the seriousness of the situation in Kachin and expressed hope that increased national and international awareness would follow the work of the WLE project, so strengthening the position of local people and helping to democratize environmental governance across Myanmar.
Project coordinator Oliver Springate-Baginsky from the University of East Anglia said that the democratic process in Myanmar was helping this process. “It’s now become okay to raise a grievance in Myanmar.” he said “whereas before it was not possible. What we are doing is showing local people how they can do this in peaceful ways and still be heard.”
There are signs that solutions are possible. The army has instituted monthly meetings with villagers in the Indawgyi area to listen to their concerns. Myint Aung of the Indo-Myanmar Conservation program said that weak local governance and cooperation between agencies was hindering communities’ ability to protect resources including wildlife, but that the WLE project was helping to highlight the main issues. “Before we make real progress, though, peace is essential.”
Here's a short film from WLE outlining the project; you can also find more detail at WLE-Mekong's website.