BANGKOK — Saw Ma Bu’s family has lived in the mountainous forests of Myanmar’s Karen State for generations, farming and fishing in the Salween River, even as a decades-long armed conflict raged in the region.
Now, he says, they fear their way of life is under threat as the government declares swathes of forest in indigenous Karen homelands as protected areas.
Saw Ma Bu and other community leaders have drawn up their own plan to conserve the forest, preserve their traditions and livelihoods, and be a model for indigenous lands elsewhere in the country.
Under their proposal, the Karen people would manage the Salween Peace Park, a 5,200-square-km area on Myanmar’s eastern frontier with Thailand.
“The Peace Park is built on the culture and traditions of the indigenous Karen people. Conservation and coexistence with the environment is a fact of life for us, and essential for our survival,” said Saw Ma Bu.
Myanmar officials have not yet agreed to their proposal.
Saw Ma Bu has seen protected areas uprooting indigenous people elsewhere in the country and is keeping a close watch on neighboring Tanintharyi Region, where Karen people also live.
Civil society groups there have opposed the creation of large protected areas, saying they could force people from their homes and prevent those who fled fighting from returning.
Saw Ma Bu said the Peace Park would ensure that his community retains the rights to their traditional land.
“In the government’s plans for conservation there is no recognition of the territorial rights of our customary land and forest, or our traditional agricultural methods,” he said.
His concerns are mirrored amongst indigenous groups around the world, according to the advocacy organization Rights and Research International (RRI).
Indigenous and local communities own more than half the world’s land under customary rights. Yet they only have secure legal rights to 10 percent, RRI said.
The rapid growth of protected areas from Peru to Indonesia is exacerbating their vulnerability: More than 250,000 people in 15 countries were evicted because of protected areas from 1990 to 2014, according to data compiled by RRI.
Land under protected areas tripled between 1980 and 2005, and as much as 80 percent of those areas overlapped with indigenous land, RRI said in a report published in June.
This “creates a near-constant state of confrontation and potential for conflict and violence,” including evictions and killings, said Janis Alcorn, a co-author of the report.
“Indigenous people and local communities have been conserving their land and forests for centuries. But the rise of ‘fortress conservation’ is forcing them from their homes, hurting people and forests alike,” she said.
In Karen State, where the Karen National Union (KNU) fought for autonomy for more than six decades, the conflict has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, rights groups say.
The KNU and the Myanmar government reached a ceasefire agreement in 2012, ending their armed confrontation, although relations remain tense.
Government plans for protected areas in the region could undermine the fragile peace by jeopardizing the livelihoods and wellbeing of Karen people, said Hsa Moo at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).
That is one reason the Peace Park is so important, she added.
Community organizers have held consultations with the nearly 10,000 households within the proposed park and have mapped their customary land and community forests with “careful negotiation and consensus,” she said.
“It is our hope the Myanmar government will recognize that respecting indigenous and community rights and strengthening local livelihoods is a step towards achieving meaningful and equitable peace,” she said.
A government official pointed out that a law passed this year enables indigenous people and villagers to apply for a permit to establish a so-called community conserved protected area.
“Engagement with the local communities lies at the very heart of safeguarding key biodiversity areas,” Win Naing Tha, director of Myanmar’s forests department, said in an email.
“Local communities will be active participants of community forestry and promoting community conserved areas,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ridge to reef
That promise is being tested as the government launches its ambitious Ridge to Reef Project, which covers about one third of Tanintharyi Region and overlaps with some areas that the KNU says are contested.
The $21-million project covers 1.4 million hectares and includes forests, mangroves, islands and marine systems.
Officials say that declaring the area as protected is essential to conserve threatened wildlife and mitigate damage from deforestation, illegal logging and industrial development.
Campaigners say the protected area proposals were made without the free, prior and informed consent of communities.
The protected area could make farming illegal, prevent refugees from returning and uproot more than 16,000 indigenous people, including many Karen, according to the advocacy group Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT).
Last month, CAT submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility — which has funded projects in developing countries since it was established at a UN conference in 1992 — asking that they suspend the plan.
“In the name of conservation, the local people will lose their ancestral lands and livelihoods,” CAT said.
CAT has called for a moratorium on establishing protected areas until customary rights of indigenous people are recognized and a comprehensive peace deal is reached with the KNU.
An official from the UN Development Program (UNDP), which is backing the project, said “a wide range of consultations” were held and that feedback had been incorporated.
“The project will identify and realize opportunities for co-managing with local communities,” said Peter Batchelor, of the UNDP in Myanmar.
Campaigners say they will continue to protest the project and push for recognition for the Salween Peace Park.
“By supporting indigenous communities to preserve their cultural heritage and secure tenure claims over land and forest, conservation can take place with, rather than in spite of us,” said KESAN’s Hsa Moo.