Southern Myanmar’s indigenous groups say the UN should scrap $21 million conservation plan

Indigenous conservation advocates in southern Myanmar. (Photo: Conservation Alliance Tanawthari)

Local residents and activists in southern Myanmar say indigenous experts are more effective at conservation than the UN, saying top-down plans for massive nature reserves will cut off locals’ access to food and land.

By Skylar Lindsay

Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region is among the most vibrantly biodiverse places in Asia. The southern tail of kite-shaped Myanmar, Tanintharyi encompasses hundreds of islands in the Myeik Archipelago, mangrove-lined coast, evergreen forests and the mountainous spine that forms the Thai-Myanmar border.

The region holds some of Southeast Asia’s largest intact forests, which feed and house complex ecosystems of tigers, Asian elephants, gibbons, clouded leopards, tapirs, pangolins and people. Nearly 1.5 million people living across Tanintharyi’s forests and coastline rely on the region’s ecosystems to fish, hunt and harvest vegetables and herbs.

But an alliance of local community groups in Tanintharyi is calling for the government and environmental organisations to drop plans for a US$21 million conservation project in the region.

The UN-backed Ridge to Reef Project aims to turn 3.4 million acres of land—over a third of Tanintharyi—into conservation areas, but the Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT) says the project will jeopardize local communities’ access to food and livelihoods. According to CAT, the conservation project will dispossess tens of thousands of indigenous people of their land, primarily ethnic Karen communities.

Instead, the communities and groups behind CAT are calling for donors, environmental groups and the government to change course and embrace an inclusive, indigenous-led approach to conservation. Local groups also point to how top-down conservation efforts have so far failed, allowing logging, mining and destructive development projects. A new report by CAT outlines indigenous opposition to the UN project and lays out exactly how each party involved can let local residents take the lead—including how Myanmar needs to amend domestic laws to recognize local land management systems.

Indigenous conservation advocates in southern Myanmar. (Photo: Conservation Alliance Tanawthari)

Local groups say indigenous experts know best how to conserve the land

Local residents have been conserving the landscape for hundreds of years through their relationship to the ecosystems that they are a part of, and through indigenous practices like communal land management and sustainable farming.

Residents across the region already base their lives on what the UN and environmental groups would call “conservation strategies”—regulating hunting, establishing fish conservation areas, managing forest fires and cultivating herb forests. Villagers use rotational farming to grow rice, chillies, vegetables and other crops, and keep orchards of betel nut, mangosteen, guava, durian, coconuts, cashews, cardamom and limes. In coastal areas, residents forage for shellfish and snails. In the Myeik Archipelago, locals catch oysters, lobster, sea cucumber, crabs and other sea life, eating a diverse and sustainable diet.

The recent report from CAT shows how some of these villages are now mapping their land, documenting each of these practices—as well as the systems the communities use to approve or reject changes to how their land is used.

Some of these systems are formally recognized by the Karen National Union (KNU), the ethnic armed group that controls sections of the region and has its own land and forestry policies. The KNU has established one natural medicinal conservation zone, the Tameh Herbal Medicine Forest, at the northern end of the proposed Ridge to Reef area.

In this area, Karen organisations are working to catalogue wild edible and medicinal plants. So far, they have logged 245 varieties of medicinal plants and 188 wild edible species.

More recently, indigenous Karen have created the Salween Peace Park, a combined conservation and peacebuilding effort that coordinates land management across an area twice the size of the US’s Yosemite National Park.

“Indigenous peoples conserve their territories through a landscape approach by seeing the interconnections through the landscape—we have seen this through the example of the Salween Peace Park,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a member of CAT. “Now it is time for governments, international organisations, businesses and the UN to learn from indigenous people.”

CAT says the most effective way to preserve Tanintharyi is to support existing local strategies and listen to local experts—because they know best how to conserve the landscape, having done so for generations.

“Our communities have been conserving this area for generations; it’s time for their efforts and initiatives to be recognised and supported,” said Saw San Ngwe, community leader and director of Southern Youth Development Organization.

Indigenous residents perform a ceremony in the forest in southern Myanmar. (Photo: Conservation Alliance Tanawthari)

Local groups force UN to suspend plans

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) put the Ridge to Reef project on pause in 2018 after CAT and local residents filed an official complaint with the UN saying they had never consented to the project.

Residents said the partners behind the project—the Global Environment Facility, Fauna & Flora International and the Myanmar government—never asked local residents how to conserve the land. The proposed conservation areas would impact 225 villages, but CAT says the organizations only consulted with 14 villages.

They also said the conservation plan seeks to dictate how local residents can and cannot interact with their environment, threatening their access to food, livelihoods and places that are culturally vital. The complaint said that the conservation plan would also prevent refugees and displaced communities from returning home to the region.

The UNDP launched an investigation in response to the communities’ complaint and it is still ongoing.

(Photo: Conservation Alliance Tanawthari)

Existing conservation efforts have failed, exposing the region’s ecosystems to damage

The government first proposed national parks for Tanintharyi in 2002 under the military junta. But the region has still seen a rapid increase in mines and land concessions that allow private and government-backed companies to pull the landscape apart. The government has ceded parts of existing conservation areas, like Lenya national park, to commercial interests.

The region was also an active conflict zone until 2012, when the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar military signed a bilateral ceasefire. Since then, agribusinesses and development corporations have become increasingly interested in the region.

“Our lands are threatened both by expanding agribusiness and mining projects on one side, and national parks and conservation on the other,” said Saw San Ngwe.

Tanintharyi’s landscape is now pockmarked with 1.8 million acres of palm oil concessions and dozens of mines. Mangrove forests are quickly being cut to supply charcoal for Thailand. The forests and coasts also face threats from planned industrial zones and 18 proposed dams, according to a tally by local advocacy groups, as well as extensive highway projects.

The stakes of conservation in Tanintharyi go beyond local access to land and food—the region is a vital carbon sink and home to over 150 threatened species. The indigenous Karen groups say the existing, traditional way of managing land and resources will prevent private interests from carving up the region. The indigenous communities are calling this vision for conservation “Tanawthari Landscape of Life” (Tanawthari is the Karen name for the region).

“The Tanawthari Landscape of Life is a vision of community-driven conservation, of harmonious relationships between humans and nature, and of lasting peace,” said Naw Ehhtee Wah, CAT coordinator. “We hope that international organisations, donors, and the Myanmar government will hear our calls and support this vision, rather than making plans without us.”

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the environment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.