Guest Column

Unifying Indigenous Karen to Preserve Sacred Forests and Cultural Heritage

By Hsa Moo 19 December 2016

On a misty morning in late November 2016, 77 community representatives from Karenni State as well as from all seven Karen districts gathered in the Karen village of Paw La Pu in Mutraw District, following a week-long trek from the Salween River.

They were about to go deeper into the jungles of eastern Burma. As they stood in a circle, Saw Tha Htoo, one of the village’s community leaders, began telling the story of the Kheshorter Forest. His passionate voice filled the air, accompanied by melodies of songbirds flying through the forest around them.

A short time ago, before the armed conflicts with the Burma Army, wild elephants and rhinos walked the very spot where the representatives now stood. But today, there are none to be found. Despite two decades of conflict and resettlement, the forests here are doing much better than other parts of Burma. A chorus of endangered hoolock gibbons rang clearly through the evergreen forests, a testament to the community’s stewardship of their lands. We live in an era of environmental crises around the world, but it is communities, rather than governments, that are defending the ecological integrity of their homes.

The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), the Karen National Liberation Army’s 5th Brigade, and the indigenous Karen communities of Kheshorter Forest jointly organized this historic gathering of community representatives from places as far as Dawei, to learn about how the local people have protected their forests from destruction.

Saw Ma Bu Htoo, the lead KESAN facilitator of the trip, said, “In Kawthoolei—the Karen name for Karen territories and lands, translated as ‘land of the thoolei flower’ or ‘land without evil’—we’ve never had a trip like this to exchange experiences and learn from each other.”

He also said, “Kheshorter is one of the largest, best managed forests, where communities still closely follow traditional forest management practices,” adding that other districts could learn much from indigenous Karen customs and the local community’s active protection of its forests.

With the impacts of climate change increasing day by day, it is more urgent than ever to preserve the forests and watersheds that help to stabilize the climate and sustain the well being of humans and wildlife. The rapidly changing political situation in Burma, along with the lifting of sanctions on military-affiliated extractive industries, threatens the sustainability of development in ethnic states. According to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report, in 2015, Burma had the third-worst annual deforestation rate in the world, losing up to 2 percent of the country’s forest area each year from 2010-2015. Much of that deforestation was due to logging, mining, rubber or palm oil plantations, and hydropower development, and it resulted in the mass dispossession of thousands of people.

There is no doubt that Burma’s precious natural resources must be protected, but it must be done in a manner that does not violate the rights of people who live in and around forests. Many governments and international conservation organizations take the stance that effective forest conservation requires heavy restrictions on human access, which in turn often lead to the forced eviction of communities. But the evidence from many places, including Kawthoolei, suggests otherwise.

Most recently, a 2016 study by the World Resources Institute demonstrated that forests inhabited and managed by indigenous peoples have experienced deforestation rates that are 2 to 2.8 times lower than the deforestation rates in areas where indigenous people did not have secure land rights. In light of those realities, KESAN has been working to advance the recognition of land and forest rights of indigenous communities throughout Kawthoolei, so that people can lead both peaceful and sustainable lives.

The indigenous Karen worldview emphasizes living in harmony with their natural surroundings, as communities have traditionally relied on a deep historical knowledge of the land, forests, and water for survival. This recognition of the interdependence of humans and their surrounding environment informs and shapes the Karen way of life.

Saw Tha Htoo explained how, in 1997, the war waged by the Burma Army forced many Karen people to flee deep into the jungles. When the displaced villagers first settled in the Kheshorter area, out of desperation to survive and feed themselves, they had to clear previously undisturbed old-growth forests that they considered sacred. Given the dire circumstances they faced, the people of Kheshorter still wanted to conserve the forests for endangered species like gibbons and tigers.

Without any support from the central government, the Kheshorter villages came together to establish ground rules for the sustainable management of their new home. Collaborating as a grassroots democracy in the jungle, the 15 villages that make up the Kheshorter community collectively determined which forest zones were accessible or restricted, to ensure that no individual would be disproportionately affected by the community regulations. Only certain areas were reserved for shifting cultivation and paddy farming, while large swathes of forest were entirely protected for both conservation and spiritual reasons. Building on their knowledge of the forest ecosystem and indigenous taboos against hunting and harvesting, the villagers formally established the Kheshorter Community Forest, covering an area of 14,604 acres—the size of Insein and Mayangone townships combined.

Even after the 2012 ceasefire between the KNU and the former government, the militarization of the forests and mountains of Mutraw District continues to this day. Sadly, one of the Kheshorter Wildlife Patrol leaders was shot dead by the Burma Army in March 2015. Around Burma, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, land and environmental defenders are being killed for wanting to protect their homes from destructive development. Nevertheless, locals persevere to fight for their land and way of life, risking their lives to patrol the forests against poachers and others hoping to exploit the forests’ natural resources.

Other Karen communities hope to replicate the Kheshorter community’s model of an indigenous-managed forest system that integrates biodiversity conservation and forest utilization. After a journey under canopies of ancient trees and over breathtaking mountains, many representatives from the seven districts of Kawthoolei were inspired to revitalize their own communities’ observance of indigenous Karen traditions and beliefs, in order to better preserve both their own cultural identity and natural landscapes. When people know that land is securely theirs, they will have a reason to take better care of it. One representative summed up what he learned: “If you don’t take care of the forest, nobody will take care of it for you.”

The Kheshorter Community Forest is one of the keystone efforts that will serve as a model for other Karen communities to emulate. KESAN is currently working to establish an indigenous and community conserved area in Mutraw District called the Salween Peace Park. The Salween Peace Park will create space for Karen people to preserve their cultural heritage and natural resources, and enjoy a lasting, stable peace on their own terms. There is power and wisdom to be found in the traditions that Karen communities continue to practice, and that indigenous knowledge is more relevant than ever in the 21st century. The Salween Peace Park builds on and modernizes the Karen people’s ecologically sustainable heritage of land governance and management, so that communities can revitalize practices that sustain not only their livelihoods, but the land and forests as well.

The Kheshorter Community Forest is living proof that humans can co-exist with natural ecosystems and leave a smaller footprint than most in the developed world would imagine is possible. Indeed, there is much that the rest of the world can learn from the Karen people.

At the end of the journey through the Kheshorter Forest, Saw Tha Htoo looked back at the trees behind them. He was silent for a moment, then mused that one day, when the armed conflict and violence ends for good, the villagers will return to their original homes, and their sacred forests will once again return back to their original glory.

Has Moo is the media coordinator of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a non-profit ethnic Karen environmental and human rights advocacy organization.