Farmer May Cho Win has been working on the same land for over 10 years.
When the 28-year-old heard that a conservation project would include her farmland, she wondered how she and her husband would support their children.
“Without our land we can’t live,” she told The Associated Press, speaking by phone from her one-room home. “If they come and do this project, we will have nothing to do — we’ll be like dead people.”
The $21 million project was the idea of the United Nations development program in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. It would conserve nearly 14,000 square kilometers of land, coastal areas, and waters in the country’s south.
The Global Environment Facility has offered financing to pay for the project. Other money would come from the Myanmar government, America’s Smithsonian Institution, and other partners.
But Indigenous and land rights activists say the project will affect about 225 villages in the proposed park area. They note that many of the villagers depend on farming and fishing for their survival. The project has been delayed while the U.N. program’s inspector general investigates their concerns.
Lack of community approval
With development and deforestation increasing worldwide, Indigenous activists and conservationists recognize the importance of protecting natural areas. They provide a living space for many animals and plants and valuable carbon storage for a warming planet.
Yet palm oil companies, seafood farming, mining and illegal logging operations have caused environmental damage in much of Southeast Asia. Between 2010 and 2015, U.N. officials say, Myanmar experienced the world’s third-highest forest loss after Brazil and Indonesia.
But local activists say when the U.N. program designed the conservation project, it did little to consult with the local community. That violates a central right contained within the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The U.N. said there were many consultations with the community. But activists say that many villagers were not informed of the project until after it was approved.
“Both the project side and government sides didn’t come and inform us about the project,” said Saw Min Yin by phone.
Saw Min Yin is a village leader in the proposed project area. “We don’t accept this project, because our traditional ways of life may disappear because of it,” the 36-year-old said.
Indigenous activists also fear the project would deny some people the right to return home, meaning those forced to flee during years of conflict. Such a return is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Conservation Alliance Tanawthari is a coalition of Indigenous community organizations. It made an official complaint in September 2018 to the independent U.N. development program inspector general for investigation.
The U.N. said project activities are currently “fully suspended,” and the inspector general still has no estimated release date for findings.
U.N. officials rejected The AP’s requests for interviews.
Questions over U.N.-supported projects
The Myanmar project is not the first time U.N.-Global Environment Facility conservation projects have been questioned.
In January 2020, a draft of a report by the U.N. development program found that the Baka people had been forced from their homeland in the Republic of Congo. They had lived in forests close to a national park that the U.N. program had financed with other partners. The draft report found the Baka had been beaten by park workers and that women tribe members had been sexually harassed.
Holly Jonas is with the ICCA Consortium, a group working for Indigenous rights. She told The AP there is a false belief that nature is better without people and that “we have to protect nature from people.”
After learning of the U.N. project in Myanmar, land rights activists spent nearly a year talking with local communities. Their goal was to draft a separate proposal for the Indigenous people to conserve the land.
The proposal involved traditional community-led conservation efforts that have been used for generations. It includes land and forest supervision and traditional customs and actions that protect biodiversity.
“We consider ourselves like an animal of the forest. It’s like we are tigers — when you take a tiger out of the forest, how will it live?” said Paul Sein Twa. He leads the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network. “We consider it part of our life and duty to protect our lands.”
Evidence of the effectiveness of such community-led conservation already can be found in Myanmar. Earlier this year, a community-led conservation project in Karen State won the U.N. Equator Prize for environmentally safe development solutions.
For May Cho Win, the desire to keep protecting her forested land and to grow durian and cotton plants remains firm — U.N. project or not.
I’m Alice Bryant.
The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
conservation – n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources
indigenous – adj. living or existing naturally in a particular region or environment
logging – n. cutting down trees for timber
consult – v. to talk about something with someone in order to make a decision
complaint – n. a statement that you are unhappy or not satisfied with something
interview – n. a meeting at which people talk to each other in order to ask questions and get information
draft – adj. not yet in final form
park – n. a large area of public land kept in its natural state to protect plants and animals
harass – v. to annoy or bother someone in a constant or repeated way
biodiversity – n. the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment