More than 1.8 million acres of palm oil plantations in Burma’s southern Tenasserim Division do more harm than good for local Karen villagers, causing land conflict, damaging livelihoods, destroying biodiversity, and polluting the environment, according to a new report.
Companies and businesspeople have taken over land that once belonged to local communities who were displaced by civil war, destroying their crop plantations for palm oil projects without compensation, according to the new report titled Green Desert, which was released by several local civil society organizations after 18 months of research.
At a press conference in Rangoon on Thursday, representatives of the organizations and affected villagers said that companies had taken control of their land.
“They took our land by force. We changed from landowners to workers. It [the palm oil project] had many negative impacts on us,” said local villager Saw En P’reh at the press conference.
The report highlighted a controversial project—the Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation (MSPP)—as a case study, out of the many land grab cases in the Tenasserim region. Its concession overlaps with 38,900 acres of community and agricultural lands belonging to four villages, which were incorrectly classified as “vacant land” by the Burmese government, said the report.
The civil society organizations urged the MSPP to cease operations, consult local communities and provide fair compensation. The organizations include Tarkapaw, Trip Net, Southern Youth, Candle Light, Khaing Myae Thitsar, Myeik Lawyer Network, Dawei Development Association and Dawei Pro-Bono Lawyers Network.
They also demanded that the MSPP and other oil palm projects conduct an environmental impact assessment and produce an environmental management plan.
“We held the conference because we want the MSPP to compensate people for the land where they have already planted. We want them to return unused land [to villagers] to let them grow crops,” said Aye Mon Thu, a spokesperson for the Dawei Pro Bono Lawyer Network.
According to the report, the activities of the MSPP have caused severe negative social and environmental impacts on approximately 4,480 people from four villages within the concession area, and 13 villages were affected in total.
The MSPP is a joint venture between Malaysia-based Prestige Platform and Burma-based Stark Industries.
The companies have cleared more than 6,000 acres since 2011, including the betel nut and cashew orchards that villagers depend on for their livelihoods.
“Families who have lost their productive land have fallen into high levels of debt or been forced to work as day laborers for low wages. Many villagers do not earn enough money to feed and clothe their families,” read the report.
It also stated that chemical fertilizers and pesticides used by the MSPP have “polluted water sources, causing livestock to die and villagers to fall ill with skin irritations and dysentery.” Locals, however, never received fair compensation for enduring these impacts, the report said.
The MSPP palm oil project is located in an area that has seen decades of civil war. Due to military offensives, local villagers have repeatedly fled their homes, being displaced in the jungle, or taking shelter in refugee camps in Thailand. They have not been able to register their lands, leaving them vulnerable to dispossession.
The MSPP was granted a permit by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) in 2011 to establish a 38,000-acre, US$36.75 million palm oil project in Tenasserim Township, Myeik District.
It remains difficult to determine the actual size of the concession area. A project signboard erected by the MSPP in 2014 lists the concession area as 42,200 acres, while a company map from 2015 shows a concession boundary measuring 49,227 acres, according to the rights groups.
Following bilateral ceasefire agreement between the ethnic Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government in 2012, the one-time war zone was transformed into an economic zone.
Civil society organizations emphasized the high risks of large-scale investment in areas where there is a combined administration of state officials and ethnic armed organizations, and where governance is weak. In such areas, the organization representatives pointed out, local communities have no land tenure security.