Marleen Brouwer via web
This week the final assessment workshop of MOSAIC is taking place in Myeik, in Tanintharyi Region. MOSAIC is one of the consortia that are part of the Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) program by the Dutch research organization NWO-WOTRO. The objective of CCMCC is: “to strengthen the evidence on the impact of climate change and climate change policies on conflict or cooperation in developing countries, and in particular to strengthen the evidence on the impact of policies and financing mechanisms to address the problem of climate change on cooperation and conflict” (https://www.nwo.nl/en/research-and-results/programmes/conflict+and+cooperation+in+the+management+of+climate+change+%28ccmcc%29). The case studies of MOSAIC are four landscapes: Prey Lang and Greater Aural in Cambodia, and Northern Shan State and Tanintharyi Region in Myanmar. I am joining because ICCO is one of MOSAIC’s consortium members.
The actual workshop started on Tuesday, but in the previous days we have done a number of exposure trips around Dawei and Myeik, including the new Special Economic Zone and a number of mining sites in and around Dawei, the MSPP (Malaysian) and MAC (Korean) palm oil concessions, and the Lenya forest in the Myeik area.
The landscapes in this part of Myanmar are stunning. The eye sees thick woods, rivers and beaches. What is harder to discover at first sight are massive extractions of resources (gas, palm oil, timber such as rubber wood), grabbing of local populations’ lands, pollution, and loss of livelihoods. Already for many years environmental degradation and human rights violations have been taken place in Tanintharyi Region, conducted by the military, militias, the government, and foreign and domestic companies.
For a long time my association with ‘conservation’, ‘reforestation’, ‘national parks’, ‘REDD+’, and – however to a lesser extent – ‘biofuels’ have been positive. Long hours in a van with activists and scholars, and talks with local and indigenous communities (mainly Karen in this area), have changed my perception of these concepts. Whereas before I would label these concepts as part of socially and environmentally sustainable development, now I have also seen another side. There are risks for local communities and for nature which follow from an overlap between large-scale land investments and climate change politics. As a consequence one sees that villagers are chased away from their lands. Not sporadically they are even blamed for contributing to climate change due to their “unsustainable” shifting cultivation practices, and for being “economically inefficient”.
In fragile countries like Myanmar, conservation and reforestation can work out differently than you would expect. What I have seen during the exposure visits, within conservation areas lands are sometimes cleared for the extraction of timber, and palm oil plants and the like are put back. They are known for degrading the soil. “Conservation” is also used as an argument to move villagers away, resulting in no-one being left to keep an eye on what is happening inside these closed-off areas. Some people have to move because of turning areas into “national parks”. There are cases where even non-governmental conservation organizations are insufficiently aware of, or active on this.
What about these villagers? We spoke to a number of them who were successfully mobilized to stand up against the MSPP concession. “Only” 8% of the total concession areas has been cleared and planted with palm oil. The other part of the 42,200 acre MSPP palm oil concession is now on hold, and in the hands of the government. The Myanmar Investment Committee and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission want to investigate first, before new clearings and plantings are done. However these promises do not always hold; in the meantime the communities have experienced continued activity of companies.
Meanwhile still many villagers have lost their lands. Sometimes pretty large numbers of acres; one community member originally had up to 60 acres of betel nut and cashew orchards. Currently there are talks about financial compensation. Instead of compensation, the villagers prefer to have their lands and their livelihoods back as how the situation was before. The areas we visited are far-off, there are no (local) markets, and small shops, schools and health care facilities are miles away. These people have always been dependent on the lands for shifting cultivation, and on the forests and rivers to collect vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs and fish. It is very tough to see them in this desperate position, where their livelihoods have been taken away. Moreover, many of them have been displaced multiple times, starting during civil wars between the Myanmar military and the Karen National Union, including the Four Cuts policy to cut ethnic militias off food, funds, information and recruitment. Nowadays, by setting up plantations and also by establishing national parks like Lenya near Myeik, this would hinder the rights of IDPs and refugees to return to their original lands.
In terms of income, the plantation workers are migrants from Ayeyarwaddy and Yangon Regions. The indigenous communities do not (want to) work on the plantations. The work is hard and underpaid (up to 5000 kyats per day, so a bit more than 3 USD), and moreover it does not fit their lifestyles. If we would look at these peoples’ monetary incomes, according to prevailing standards we would consider them “poor”. However their original way of living made it possible for them to be food secure and cure diseases with products produced on their lands, and in the forests and rivers. Now, often these areas are not “theirs” anymore, so the communities’ opportunities for informal employment decline.
The questions that will stay in my mind will be: what is a forest, and what is a farm? FAO wordings, national government definitions and community views vary greatly. Is a forest an area with an x% of tree coverage? How many different trees make up a forest? How much carbon should it store? What should a forest do to the soil and to the air? Is a forest a market opportunity? Is there a minimum or a maximum of people living in a forest? Who is able to make use of a forest? Can it have a spiritual value? Is a farm a piece of land with crops and/or livestock, or is it an interconnected entity to the lands, forests and water sources around it?
On a positive note, there are democratic, socially just and sustainable alternative models to be found. A well-known example in Myanmar is the Salween Peace Park in Karen State, established as a result of collaboration between community representatives from 23 village tracts in the three townships of Mutraw District, the Mutraw Forestry Department, and the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN): http://kesan.asia/index.php/programs/salween-peace-park-initiative. As I was told by Arnim Scheidel who did extensive research on land issues in Cambodia, also the Prey Lang Network (https://preylang.net/) is a good example of how grassroots initiatives can halt deforestation by awareness raising and direct actions such as patrolling the forest and confiscating chain saws.
In Myanmar, national NGOs, grassroots organizations and networks like KESAN but also the Dawei Development Association, Southern Youth, Land in our Hands, the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, Paung Ku and Metta (who were all to a larger or lesser extent connected to MOSAIC) need our support in protecting the environment and indigenous communities. And, since it can be very difficult to avoid palm oil, hardwoods and biofuels in our daily consumption patterns, as end consumers we should be more critical towards the companies we buy from: where and how did they source their raw materials?
The workshop yesterday presented the main findings of MOSAIC, with its strong activist-scholar tradition. Let me already share with you two highly relevant studies done by the organizations that are present here: - ‘Green Desert’: https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/Green-Desert-FINAL.pdf - ‘Our Forest, Our Life’ (produced also with financial support of ICCO’s partner organization The Border Consortium): http://www.theborderconsortium.org/media/97682/CAT_Our-Forest_Our-Life_Feb2018_eng.pdf - There is also a brand-new interesting booklet by Aung Lwin called ‘Impact of the Gas Pipeline Projects and Their Corporate Social Responsibility Programs’. It is not available online yet, but if you are interested I can send you a digital copy.
In the words of scholar-activist Jun Borras of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, who has been leading MOSAIC: “we have only been scratching the surface of this topic”. So I hope you are motivated to share these reports further in your networks, and continue to follow this subject in the months and years to come.