Salween Peace Park to Keep Lands in Local Hands

By Lawi Weng 7 January 2019

Representatives of the Salween Peace Park have said there is no vacant land in Karen State and that all land and its natural resources are managed and belong to Karen indigenous communities.

The Salween Peace Park Steering Committee has officially announced plans to establish a 5,485-square kilometer park covering the basin of the Salween River, a river sometimes called by its Burmese name, Thanlwin. The park is to be located in the Papun (known locally as Mutraw) area which is home to the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA’s) Brigade No. 5. The region has seen much armed conflict between KNLA and Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) troops over the Tatmadaw’s attempts to build a road through it for military use. The Myanmar government also have eyes set on the area with plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Salween River.

The name to be given to the park, Salween Peace Park was announced on Dec. 18, just days after the government’s announcement of amendments made to the Vacant Land Law. The amended law is seen as a threat to many ethnic groups in Myanmar who tend to deal with land ownership through their own customary laws.

Karen customary land laws are defunct under the amended law which requires landowners to register with the government. Land which is not registered may be given to anyone who applies for the rights to work on the land. According to local rights groups, this issue may give rise to further armed conflict in the area between Karen groups and the Tatmadaw.

“If we look at [the government’s] land law, it is not appropriate for our plan (to build a park). However, if we look at the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, our Karen indigenous people have the right to protect their land,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa, executive director of Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a group which supports the park’s Steering Committee.

“We do not want to go directly against the government’s law—we want them to change their law,” he said.

Karen rebels are part of the country’s longest-running civil war with the central government which has continued for over 60 years. For many years, Karen people have not been able to actively protect their environment. Park organizers say they are now calling for all Karen to actively protect the environment.

“Under the Salween Peace Park’s charter, the Salween Peace Park Steering Committee targets various levels of environmental protection. Through these actions, the SPP intends to reach the targets. Along the way, this strategy will also help the Karen community for [the protection of their] environment,” he said.

The Karen have long-established customary laws in place to protect their lands and environment. The laws allow for areas where wildlife lives freely, but also zones where locals can cut small amounts of timber for their cooking needs. They also have untouched forests.

For the implementation of the park, the Salween Peace Park Steering Committee is forming a governance body which includes members of the local community, civil society organizations (CSOs) and members of the Karen National Union (KNU), with the locals to take a leading role in decision-making.

The Salween Peace Park Steering Committee has worked hard to establish the park, first defining the border of the park and then mapping the area using GPS. They are in the process of recording the names of each river, area and village. This will help to define the borderline areas and therefore decide what land belongs to who in order to avoid territorial disputes in the future.

Traditionally, locals define land borders using natural landmarks like rocks or trees, but this does not accurately track land ownership. The organizers of the Salween Peace Park will use GPS to track specifically which areas belong to who.

“After mapping the areas, we can then decide which area will be for wildlife and which areas will be for local people’s use. We will have the road names and river names and this will become the evidence the locals can use to show they own the land,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa.

If the government tries to carry out development in our Karen area, we can show our maps and which areas belong to who, he said.

The park will cover around 300 villages with over 60,000 residents who will be mainly responsible for the care of their lands. The governing body of the Salween Peace Park will support the existing systems and regulations that locals are already using to care for the land.

The Salween Peace Park governance body will work together with local people to map areas and define zones for forestry, cutting timber, mining and growing food. The park will continue to follow customary Karen laws for the protection of the park.

As Karen customary laws are traditionally passed from generation to generation orally, with no official paper records, people usually go on their elders’ advice for the protection of the environment.

“We will let them write their law, and let them respect their written law. If someone violates the law, they will punish the person for it. If the bottom level cannot solve the problem, then they can go to governance body level,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa.

This plan, however, could lead to misunderstandings with the KNU—especially with the KNU’s forestry department. In order to avoid this, representatives of the KNU have been invited to join the park’s governance body.

As a park to be created by an ethnic group amid ongoing armed conflict, it will be the first of its kind in Myanmar. Similar projects do exist abroad, however, including in Canada and the Amazon where indigenous peoples have formed and maintain their own protected parks. These examples formed part of the inspiration to initiate the Salween Peace Park project.

The Salween Peace Park Steering Committee believes that the local indigenous people can work effectively to establish the park without government input. Historic examples have shown that the government often abuses ethnic rights when they create national parks in ethnic areas. Saw Paul Sein Twa said that people may even destroy land when control of their lands is to be taken from them for the benefit of another group.

The park area is home to different types of wildlife and many tigers, according to KESAN. The Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative (KWCI) is a group of forest and wildlife experts and rangers that has been tasked with monitoring wildlife in the area. KWCI will work with international wildlife groups and they expect the wildlife population to grow under the initiative.

As the Karen community undergoes more political and social changes, the environment is increasingly under threat. Since the KNU signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in 2015, the state has seen an increase in mining businesses. Non-indigenous hunters who attempt to hunt in the area also threaten the environment and wildlife population.

The Salween Peace Park aims to use modern methods alongside customary laws to protect the Karen environment.

“We can’t continue anymore in the old style of the last five decades. Our Karen need new methods to protect their environment,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa.

A recount of the launch of Salween Peace Park

A number of journalists, activists and environmentalists were invited to Papun for the official launch of Salween Peace Park. Here, freelance writer Scott Ezell, recounts his impression of the land in which the Salween Peace Park is to be established.

We got off a longtail boat at a small Karen village on the banks of the Salween, north of the Thai border at Mae Sariang. We rode a large goods lorry straight up the face of a line of mountains and from the top, we could see for miles in all directions. The landscape was made up of fold after fold of mountains and valleys running north-south in Karen State and also across the Salween in Thailand. In Thailand the forest was cut and replanted 10 or 20 years ago, but in Karen State, locally known as Kawthoolei, the forest was closer to being whole and in its original state.

The roads in the area are not paved and there is no cell phone reception, so entering Karen State is like going back in time.

The landscape inside the Salween Peace Park is lush and green with streams and rivers running through. The mountains rise up from the rivers so when you are in the valley you feel enclosed there. There is no electricity except for generators and some solar panels. Construction in the villages is mostly bamboo, thatch and wood, with little concrete in the area and very few motorbikes. People work with their hands and with the natural materials from the environment, especially bamboo and wood. Most of the women and men wear traditional Karen clothing.

There were KNLA soldiers at the peace park launch, and they served as a reminder that even though the lifestyle here is simple, organic, and based on the natural materials of this land, these people are also enclosed within a war zone. The tribute made to Saw O Moo, who was killed by Tatmadaw soldiers in 2017, was a reminder that there is a constant threat of danger here.

The peace park is a project to build peace from the ground up, and not to wait for it to come from Naypyitaw. At the same time, “peace” for the Karen also means being able to live in their land in the way they desire. To send Karen people to refugee camps, or to Chiang Mai or Canada, might protect them from military violence, but it is another way to remove them from the land where they belong.

Since Karen State holds the largest amount of remaining biodiversity in Myanmar, it is clear that the traditional Karen means of livelihood and land management feeds directly into global goals such as protecting forests and biodiversity, as well as making claim to the rights of indigenous peoples promised by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which Myanmar is a signatory.

Leaving the Peace Park was like leaving behind another world—a world where the central government and corporations have not yet arrived, where people and forests and animals are all still living in balance, without outside forces extracting resources for profit. It is not true that Karen State is entirely untouched by development and mega-projects are planned, including the Hat Gyi Dam on the Salween. However, seeing how the Karen people have preserved their culture and the natural landscape, make it clear that the Salween Peace Park would be an ideal way to manage this large area of Karen State communities and forests, as well as other areas in the world where indigenous peoples still live on the land which is their home.

Additional reporting by Scott Ezell, a freelance journalist who visited Papun district last month.