The joint project between the governments of Finland and Myanmar and the United Nations takes a conflict-sensitive approach to monitoring forests.
By Zachary Frye
In Myanmar, a five-year project to monitor the country’s forests led by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is set to get underway.
Its goal is to measure and observe the country’s forests to evaluate efforts to curb greenhouse gases and prevent forest degradation.
According to the FAO, the project is unique due to its reliance on human rights and a conflict-sensitive approach to forest monitoring, a first in a country where the central government remains mired in intermittent clashes with ethnic armies, many of which reside in forested areas in Myanmar’s border regions.
In response to the announcement, Dr. Nyi Nyi Kyaw, director-general of Myanmar’s Forest Department in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, welcomed the FAO’s approach and took a conciliatory tone toward the country’s various ethnic groups.
“We are in urgent need of better and updated data about the state of all the forests in Myanmar. This data will help to better plan and evaluate sustainable forest use and conservation in our country together with all stakeholders, public and private, and also in the land areas of our ethnic brothers and sisters,” he said.
The project is a welcome addition to regional efforts to push back against the ill effects of deforestation and global warming. Its focus on human rights and sensitivity to conflict-prone areas, however, will depend on the backing of local communities to prevent good intentions from inflaming further conflict.
The conflict-sensitive approach is crucial in Myanmar’s context
Myanmar is home to over 100 different ethnic groups. While not all of them are in conflict with the central government, rebel groups in Rakhine, Shan, Chin, Karen and Kachin states are particularly active.
Many of these groups are fighting for some form of autonomy from the government and in some cases want secession from the country itself. As a part of the Myanmar military’s campaigns to stamp out dissent, many ethnic minority populations have been repressed. In worst-cases scenarios, they have been denied rights and forced off their land.
According to Xiaojie Fan, FAO representative to Myanmar, the team is acutely aware of the challenges and remain confident they can follow through on the project without inflaming tensions.
Although there are “many conflicts or mixed governance land areas which pose particular challenges in working and engaging ethnic peoples and stakeholders” the project will ensure “the socio-political and cultural context is explicitly addressed,” she said.
Speaking with ASEAN Today, an FAO representative based in Myanmar, Franz-Eugen Arnold, assured that data collection will be undertaken in agreement with relevant leaders no matter their affiliation.
“Specific procedures need to be developed, discussed and agreed upon with ethnic and government authorities before implementing any practical work in those areas,” he said, adding that the “guiding principles for this work will be the principles of human rights” from the UN Charter and “proven participatory approaches” in rural Myanmar.
For any problems that arise, he said there will be a “specific grievance mechanism” and that any concerns will be dealt with “collaboratively among all concerned parties.”
Updated data can help Myanmar fight back against deforestation
As per data from the FAO on land use and forest coverage, the amount of land set aside for agriculture in Myanmar continues to rise while forested areas are becoming degraded, especially those that surround non-forested areas in central Myanmar, the economic hub of the country.
Since 2000, the amount of arable land in Myanmar has increased by over 1 million hectares. Despite continued economic growth, rural areas are still home to over 70% of the population. Similarly, 70% of Myanmar’s citizens are engaged in farming, demonstrating a heavy reliance on land and agriculture.
As for the specific data gathered for this project, the FAO will measure forest sizes, the number of trees and soil compositions, all of which will be done “in a participatory manner” with local communities.
With the results, the project aims to equip the government with tools to promote sustainability. Not only do the country’s forests help sustain local livelihoods, they also help push back against greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
Previous FAO projects have been useful in this regard. The new project is linked to its REDD+ program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), under which 40 countries have developed forest monitoring systems and 17 have finalized and adopted climate and forest sustainability strategies.
“It is the first time that we plan to include aspects of human rights and conflict sensitivity explicitly and visibly in the project approach,” added Arnold. “The idea is also that the experiences from Myanmar help enlighten approaches in other countries with similar conditions or challenges for global application.”
Despite its relatively low greenhouse gas emissions, Myanmar’s role in mitigating climate change and reducing deforestation is as important as that of any nation across the globe. Its unique circumstances regarding ongoing conflict, however, make sustainability more difficult.
The FAO’s approach centering around human rights and conflict sensitivity is both welcome and necessary in Myanmar, and it could be used as a model for forest measurement in other situations of conflict, but appropriate project management will be key.
Amid the ongoing international legal battle over the situation in Rakhine State, coupled with increased doubts about the credibility of the Myanmar government and its human rights record, the partnership with the FAO has the potential to be a model of intergovernmental cooperation in trying times.