Interview

‘Our Struggle Is Far From Over,’ Says Karen Recipient of ‘Environmental Hero’ Prize

By Nyein Nyein 1 December 2020

Ethnic Karen environmentalist Saw Paul Sein Twa has been awarded the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize, which recognizes individuals for their “sustained and significant efforts to protect the natural environment.”

Saw Paul Sein Twa is one of the US-based Global Environmental Foundation’s six global “Environmental Heroes” for 2020. The prize has been bestowed by the foundation since 1989.

Seeking to preserve both the environment and Karen culture in Myanmar, Paul Sein Twa, 47, led his people in establishing the 1.35-million-acre (546,325-hectare) Salween Peace Park, a unique and collaborative community-based approach to conservation, in the Salween River basin in December 2018.

The Salween River basin is a major biodiversity zone and home to the indigenous Karen people, who have long sought self-determination and stewardship over their land. The Salween Peace Park, which is in Karen National Union-controlled territory in Mutraw (Papun) district of Karen State, represents a major victory for peace and conservation in Myanmar.

Paul Sein Twa is himself a resident of the Salween Peace Park area and has tirelessly advocated for environmental preservation, knowing that locals are the only true “conservationists of their communities.” Some 380 communities in 26 village tracts are inside the park, hosting more than 60,000 local people, who contribute to keeping their natural environment intact.

Paul Sein Twa (left) tries a traditional musical instrument during Karen New Year in the animist village of Tha Thwee Der, located in the Salween Peace Park in Myanmar. / Brennan O’Connor / The Goldman Environmental Prize

Since he co-founded the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) in 2001, he has worked to remedy many of the serious problems caused by decades of war and opposed environmentally destructive industrial projects such as the Hatgyi mega-dam on the Salween River.

“Our struggle is far from over. We must maintain the Salween Peace Park as a place that embodies our Karen vision of peace, cultural integrity and harmonious co-existence with nature,” he said during a virtual award ceremony on Tuesday morning. “This award is a step toward gaining the international and local recognition and support that the Salween Peace Park needs to secure itself.”

Following the ceremony, The Irrawaddy spoke to Paul Sein Twa about his achievement and his future plans.

What are the main challenges you have encountered since starting the Salween Peace Park two years ago? How did you overcome them?

Challenges are always there. In many Karen areas we have endured the effects of the civil war. Besides, there are other challenges surrounding the mega-development projects such as dams and other businesses on the Salween River. As a consequence, there are fewer and fewer natural resource-rich areas for us, for the indigenous Karen to keep living our way of life. Therefore, we started the Salween Peace Park to preserve our areas, our culture and our traditions so that people can live in harmony with nature.

What led you to establish the Salween Peace Park? 

Our [Salween River] area is the land of the indigenous Karen people; we have a rich environment, with much wildlife and great biodiversity. This area is not only important for Karen people, but is a significant place for the whole of Myanmar, as well as the world. Now we are facing the global threat of climate change. This area needs to be protected. So we thought about how we can preserve it.

We studied the government’s protected areas but we did not take their approach, because creating a protected area displaces local residents and causes many human rights violations. We don’t want that. Therefore, we preserve our environment, interacting with the way of life of indigenous people. Our concept is that people and nature can live in harmony. We focus on Karen people’s relationship with the environment. If we don’t have that strong relationship, our environment will be destroyed. The locals take care of the park and we manage the land by demarcating and categorizing it into different zones: watershed, wildlife areas, farming, etc.

What drives you to work on this environmental conservation issue? 

I grew up in a village in the forest near the Salween and we have always had a connection to the forest. We play and bathe in the Salween and we drink water from the Salween River. I witnessed deforestation due to the government’s allowing a Thai company to engage in logging in our areas in 1988-89. A year or two later, we had flood and subsequent landslides. We started facing environmental degradation but at that time we did not know about the preservation of the environment. But our tradition does not allow logging. Then in 1995-96, the Salween Dam project started. Before it came, our area also faced fighting and we had to run. Then, if the dam were established, where would we stay? We were worried about it and my friends and I discussed it and started environmental conservation work. We raised awareness and provided training, and then we did the research later. We found that Karen people love the environment and they really care for it, and they find solutions through traditional methods. We got our motivation from these people and we believe we can work together; that’s how KESAN was started in 2001.

How are locals participating in preserving this 1.35 million acres of land? 

They are the key contributors to the preservation, and to the activities we engage in. We have networks of local people and a governing committee. We find the funding support for technical tasks such as land demarcation, or holding meetings. The Environmental Prize came with an honor and with financial support; it will help us a lot in our struggle during in this global [COVID-19] pandemic period.

As the recipient of a prestigious award and an “Environmental Hero”, what is your message to others, including youth, in Myanmar? 

Preserving the environment is the responsibility of all people. We need to do whatever we can, whether it is a small or a big effort, regardless of where we are. We all suffer because of globalization. Therefore, we are facing a big crisis for humanity, so we have to find solutions.

Then we will have solutions, and the Salween Peace Park offers one solution. I want to encourage all our people, ethnic [minorities] and others in Myanmar who are really looking for alternative ways to work together, so that we can all live in harmony with nature and then we also have to work to change the policies that harm our environment.

In particular, the government must also accept and acknowledge the people’s environmental conservation efforts. If not, it is not good for Myanmar.

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