YANGON — Ethnic Karen herbalist Naw Paw Lay is concerned about the link between environmental degradation and traditional health practices.
“If our forest is destroyed, we will not have any more herbal medicine plants,” she is featured as saying in a documentary about her community entitled “Indigenous Karens’ Community Forest.”
She is among those who rely on the Kheshorter Forest, home to more than 200 species of medicinal plants, about which she has extensive knowledge, particularly regarding their healing properties.
On Wednesday, in commemoration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) and the Karen National Union (KNU) launched the 26-minute documentary film exploring the community lifestyle, beliefs, and preservation practices of the Karen in the Kheshorter Forest.
The area, totaling more than 14,600 acres, is located in western Papun District—known locally as Mutraw—and Nyaung Lay Pin District, or eastern Kler Lwee Htoo, in Karen State, referred to by the Karen as Kawthoolei. It has long been cherished by locals as an environmental, social and spiritual sanctuary.
Kheshorter was featured in the forefront of the movement for the systematic restoration of forests under the collective governance, protection and management of 15 villages since 1999, prior to the official recognition of the Kheshorter forest as a Community Forest by the Karen National Union (KNU).
“We have been conserving our land, animals and natural resources in the forest with the traditional ways from our ancestors,” said Saw Oh Moo, a community elder from Kheshorter. This practice, he added, “is not new to us.”
The Kheshorter Forest is mostly mountainous, home to numerous rare and endangered species of fauna, including tigers and Hoolock Gibbons.
Restoration of the forest started with research involving the observation and documentation of orchids and herbal medicinal plants, and mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibian species. These activities were carried out in collaboration with students and the community.
In 1997, Myanmar became a member of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which aimed to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants would not threaten these species’ survival.
Through the research, it was discovered that Kheshorter hosts 120 species of orchids, 70 percent of which are included in a trading ban by CITES. Among 81 mammal species, two are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered, as are 31 reptile species, 130 types of birds, 13 amphibians, and 200 kinds of plants.
In the documentary about Kheshorter screened on Wednesday, community members expressed fear that large-scale development projects in the area would be carried out without their consent and could have a negative impact on the forest.
“Cooperation and collaboration with the local community is crucial […] to strengthen local community participation and collaboration in forestry activities in the long term,” said Padoh Mahn Ba Tun, the chairman of the KNU’s Kawthoolei Forestry Department (KFD).
He added that the KNU—a signatory to the nationwide ceasefire agreement—is already present at the peace discussion table and hoping to collaborate with the Myanmar Forest Department for long-term conservation efforts.
In November 2016, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Myanmar signed an agreement to preserve nature and wildlife in the KNU-controlled area. Under the agreement, WWF representatives and researchers agreed to provide technical and financial support to the KNU’s Forestry Department.
Community elder Saw Oh Moo said, “our actions for the forest and wildlife conservation and protection also have positive impacts on the world, which is affected by climate change and global warming.”
According to the Myanmar National Forest Master Plan (NFMP 2001), the government set a target that 2.27 million acres in the country be handed over to local forest user groups, like those serving as caretakers of Kheshorter, by 2030-31.