War has wreaked its effects on Karen state’s forests, their wildlife and their biodiversity, either through plundering of the trees by armed groups selling timber, or by the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) over the decades who have fled to the forest to escape persecution. IDPs with no other means of survival have had to clear the forest to cut small paddy farms or to use resources that ordinarily would be protected either by customary law or by geography.

[quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]”The war is directly affecting the nature of the Salween River”[/quote_colored]

“Two decades ago, the riverbank was completely covered in forest,” Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the Karen National Liberation Army’s (KNLA) Brigade 5 told Mongabay in November from his base on the Salween River. “There were no people inhabiting the riverbank. Very few places on the riverbank were occupied. Before it was like a wild forest, rich in trees and bamboos and wildlife. But due to the armed conflicts, villagers from different places in Karen State fled home and kept moving until they reached the border. They then built shelters and resided on the riverbank. Now, you can see many shelters, camps on the riverbank. And so there are less trees and bamboos as people cut them to build their houses and buildings. People also do farming. There is deforestation at some places on the riverbank. So the war is directly affecting the nature of Salween River.”

Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the KNLA’s 5th Brigade shows tons of illegally logged timber seized by his brigade earlier this year. He told Mongabay that the Karenni National People's Liberation Front had asked permission to transport the logs down the river through KNLA Brigade 5 territory, but were refused. Photo by Demelza Stokes.
Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the KNLA’s 5th Brigade shows tons of illegally logged timber seized by his brigade earlier this year. He told Mongabay the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front had asked permission to transport the logs down the river through the brigade’s territory, but were refused. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

For over 20 years, Kyaw Mue has seen the ravages of interminable civil war reflected here in the riverscape. The Karen National Union (and their armed wing, the KNLA) have struggled against the government and its army to gain political autonomy and territorial control over their lands, a conflict that has propelled thousands of IDPs to the very edge of the country, or over the border into Thailand’s refugee camps. “There used to be a lot of wildlife such as deer and jungle pigs,” said Kyaw Mue, “We could easily hunt them, but as more and more people move and reside here on the riverbank, there is more hunting. They hunt wildlife animals and sell them to make a living. But now it’s very difficult to hunt wildlife as they are decreasing.”

Peace talks between the KNU and Myanmar’s newly elected government, however, have presented a window of opportunity for the Salween Peace Park partners to advance their conservation initiative amid Myanmar’s evolving development scenario. The three core aspirations of the Salween Peace Park — peace and self-determination, environmental integrity, and cultural survival — are wrought from their polar opposites, war and oppression, widespread environmental degradation and persecution of ethnic minorities that have characterized the face of Karen state over the decades.

The Forestry Department of the Karen National Union (KFD), along with local Karen communities and environmental NGO KESAN, are key partners in the initiative. May 2016 saw the first Peace Park consultation attended by 300 people from communities across Karen state’s Mutraw district (Hpa-Pun). The plan is in its infancy and a charter is currently being drafted. “It is important to note that the Salween Peace Park will only proceed if the local and indigenous people give their consent,” Saw Paul Sein Twa, director of KESAN told Mongabay. The Peace Park’s charter drafting process will continue throughout 2017, and the aim is to hold charter consultations in each of the 23 village tracts lying within the peace park boundary, he added.

Under Myanmar’s military regime, large development projects such as dams — and sometimes the creation of protected areas — have lacked sufficient (if any) consultation with local people, and have often resulted in displacement and loss of livelihoods due to land grabbing. The Salween Peace Park aims to counter that trend. Saw Gay Htoo, a villager from Lu Thaw township and participant in the first consultation meeting told KESAN, “If we can successfully establish this peace park, it will protect and guarantee land security in our district level. Since we will have a detail defined boundary, outsiders will not be able to exploit our resources. They will not be able to grab our land and exploit our natural resources. They wouldn’t be able to dam our rivers.”

Myanmar’s political situation, decades of conflict, corruption and lack of capacity have seen the country’s protected area system lag grievously behind neighboring countries. The Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Kachin state, designated in 2001, was heralded as the world’s largest tiger reserve (when it was expanded in 2004), but cronyism and corruption led to massive encroachment in the area. Land grabs by companies associated with the former military regime led to displacement of hundreds of local Kachin families.

The codification of indigenous stewardship of the land via the Salween Peace Park aims to defy continued land-grabbing for industrial development in Karen state. Recently Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, commented on the scale of land confiscation in Karen state by local militia leaders, local government and businessmen. He called it “open season” for those in power, who seize land from local people who have not had time or opportunity to secure their land rights through formal systems. Fear of the negative impacts of large-scale infrastructure has led the KNU to call for a halt to mega-development projects until a political settlement is reached with the government, Naw Zipporah Sein, vice chairperson of the KNU, told Mongabay. She was speaking specifically of the Hat Gyi dam, one of the five large dams planned for Salween, up until now Southeast Asia’s longest free-flowing river. “For the national-level recognition [of the Salween Peace Park], existing laws and policies need to be reformed which will recognize the indigenous people’s rights to self-determination.… To be effective and sustainable, the national laws and policy must be changed — that is, the devolution of political power in the form of a democratic federal system,” said Saw Paul Sein Twa.

Displaced from their homes due to conflict this year, Karen IDPS gather in the shade at Htee Htay Khee village on the border with Thailand.
Displaced from their homes due to conflict this year, Karen IDPS gather in the shade at Htee Htay Khee village on the border with Thailand. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Around 1,400 square kilometers of the Salween Peace Park area are part of existing community forests, reserve forests, customary lands and wildlife sanctuaries. The Karen have an indigenous system called “kaw” which they use as a form of traditional land and natural resources governance system. Each “kaw” forms a particular area, and there are 29 kaw in the customary lands and community forests within the Peace Park boundary. The “kaw” is deeply rooted in Karen people’s social and cultural identity. Recognized by KNU Land Policy, it integrates “indigenous ecological knowledge, protected wildlife areas, rotational upland fields, taboos against hunting keystone species, and peaceful conflict resolution mechanisms.” The Salween Peace Park initiative aims to revitalize this indigenous Karen system and promote it as a sustainable alternative to “megadams, strip mines, top-down protected areas like national parks, all of which require the colonization of indigenous land,” according to KESAN and the KNU.

“There has been deforestation in all the KNU’s seven districts, including Mutraw district, but Mutraw has the best quality of forest and biodiversity,” said Padoh Mahn Ba Htun, the head of the KNU’s forestry department. “We even aim to make it become a recognized world heritage site.” The KFD’s forest rangers will patrol the peace park and protect against illegal logging, illegal hunting, and wildlife trafficking. But they are currently understaffed. “There are 100 or less than 100 employees of the KNU Forestry Department in each district of the KNU. We don’t have enough employees,” said Padoh Mahn Ba Htun.

The Peace Park envisions the area as a confluence of biodiversity conservation, eco-tourism, and greener energy solutions such as small hydropower and decentralized solar power. “It is an explicit alternative to potentially destructive development in the Salween River basin, proposed by the previous Myanmar government, dam companies and foreign advisors,” Jeff Rutherford, a consultant who has studied the Salween basin for over a decade, told Mongabay. The World Commission on Dams’ report (2000) concluded over fifteen years ago that most mega-dams had unleashed many problems and that the losses suffered usually outweighed the benefits. By contrast, the report found, “Decentralized, small-scale options (micro hydro, home-scale solar electric systems, and wind and biomass system) based on local renewable sources offer an important near-term, and possibly long-term, potential particularly in rural areas far away from centralized supply networks.”

Plans to build the Hat Gyi dam on the Salween River have been blamed by civil society groups, and leaders of the ethnic and political armed groups for fueling further conflict in Karen state. A 1,360-megawatt project, it will be developed by a consortium of Chinese, Thai and Myanmar developers, along with Myanmar’s ministry of electricity and energy, and its reservoir would flood two wildlife sanctuaries. According to International Rivers, a second environmental impact assessment has been completed for Hat Gyi, but the full version of the report has not been made available to the public. Despite the KNU calling for a moratorium on all large development projects until a last political settlement has been reached, Myanmar’s ministry of electricity and energy still predicts an estimated completion date for the Hat Gyi dam in 2020-2021. Although Myanmar desperately needs to increase its electricity supply, Thailand’s EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) will purchase the majority of the electricity from the Hat Gyi dam.

It remains to be seen if Myanmar’s rapid political and economic reforms will accommodate an ethnic Karen-led protected area as an alternative development pathway for this part of the country, either in tandem with, or without the large hydropower development plan for the Salween River. Stressing the importance of Karen participation in the Salween Peace Park, Saw Paul Sein Twa said, “Talk with the Myanmar government is important but it will come at the right time. Now it is important to lay the groundwork and start building the peace park from the bottom.”

Continue to Part 5, which looks at the livelihoods of downstream communities, and the broader impacts of economic development in Myanmar.

Banner image: a baby sun bear, one of the many mammals found in the Salween Basin. Photographed in Malaysia by Rhett A. Butler.