Thousands of locals took to the streets in Kachin State’s Putao, Machanbaw and Naungmon townships to protest an expansion project in Mt. Hkakabo Razi National Park headed by UNESCO.
The UN agency for international cooperation in education, science and culture is working with the Myanmar government to designate the area as the country’s first Natural World Heritage site.
“We sent our demand letters twice to the Union government in March and around May, but we did not receive any reply. The natural resources and environment ministry had issued the announcement on July 28 this year [about the designation of Hkakabo Razi as a Natural World Heritage Site],” said M Yaw Shu, the chairman of the Rawang Literature and Culture Association in Putao. “Thus we marched today [Sept. 28] to express our views.”
“As the area is set to be a heritage site, it would be difficult for us to make a living on our land,” he added. He said some 9,700 locals in Putao, 1,800 in Machanbaw and 1,200 in Naungmon joined for the marches in their respective towns on Thursday.
Citing concerns of land loss, locals held signs written in Burmese and English, stating that they reject the UNESCO designation and “condemn the expansion project.”
U Zau Raw, of the Jinghpaw Literature and Cultural Affairs Committee in Machanbaw, said that many people “don’t believe these projects will bring benefits for them.”
“Locals were displaced and struggling for survival in their daily lives because of the previous Mt. Hkakabo Razi National Park project in 1996,” he added.
Covering an area of 1,472 square miles, the Mt. Hkakabo Razi National Park was established in 1996 to conserve natural evergreen forests and wildlife; the mountain itself is 19,259 feet high.
However, ethnic Rawang, Lisu, Kachin (Jinghpaw) and indigenous Tibetan communities also live within and around the landscape of Mt. Hkakabo Razi, a hotspot of biodiversity, home to rare species of birds and plants. After the area became a national park, logging, hunting and cultivation in the area were restricted.
The Kachin Political Cooperation Committee (KPCC) published a statement on Sept. 18 condemning the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation’s announcement that the national park would be expanded and designated as a Natural World Heritage Site. The KPCC also called on the government to stop the implementation of the process, which they described as going against the will of the locals.
The Forest Department and UNESCO are now making it a priority to “safeguard natural heritage” in Myanmar. Since 2013, UNESCO has been providing the government with technical assistance for projects aiming to designate Mt. Hkakabo Razi as a Natural World Heritage Site.
The Forest Department has said that there has been engagement with stakeholders in the project area, in order to raise awareness about the initiative.
U Win Naing Thaw, a director of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, said that this month, an advocacy group toured villages, explaining the UNESCO designation to villagers.
However, U Zau Raw, of the Jinghpaw Literature and Cultural Affairs Committee in Machanbaw, said that “people don’t have trust in the government,” and that the authorities had tried to persuade people to support the UNESCO project during their tour.
U Win Naing Thaw said that the government “would not go on with these projects without the locals’ agreement.”
“I would like to request that the locals support our aims which not only benefit their livelihoods, but also preserve the precious property of the area and will make our future generations proud of the land,” he explained.
Scientists from Myanmar and abroad have estimated that the area is home to more than 6,000 plant species, 500 types of birds, 150 different kinds of mammals, and 50 species of fish, and of reptiles and amphibians.
Among the tentative list of Natural World Heritage Sites in Myanmar, Mt. Hkakabo Razi has been given top priority; the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has already acknowledged all of the potential sites.
Additional reporting by Nyein Nyein