Myanmar’s Karen people call ‘foul!’ over plans to impose new national park in ancestral lands

A new project in Myanmar called Reef to Ridge is seeking to expand protected areas and establish a new national park covering more than 1,452 million hectares at a cost of $21 million.

But for thousands of people in the region, their ancestral lands are now under threat – and those internally displaced as a result of a long military conflict are facing an added threat to their livelihoods and rights.

On Monday, the Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT) – a coalition of Karen community organisations – submitted a formal complaint to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) over the significant violation of Karen indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

In an effort to find a solution, CAT is calling for a suspension of the project and, in order to understand the impact the project will have, has called on GEF and other responsible parties to support existing indigenous initiatives according to customary systems.

“Rather than supporting top0-down conservation initiatives, GEF and responsible parties must take an alternative approach – one that centres around the rights of indigenous people to manage and protect their forests and resources,” said Saw San Ngwe, CAT member and Southern Youth Director.

“Karen communities in Tanintharyi region are already active in conserving their own natural resources, so the international community must recognise and support their efforts.”

An attempt to obtain key information about proposed plans from the United Nations Development Programme and project implementers resulted in more confusion with no one person taking responsibility for addressing the communities’ concerns.

Faith Doherty, our Forest Campaigns Leader, said: “Clearly lessons have not been learnt at the World Bank and GEF when funding of this magnitude for conservation is being used without consideration of communities.

“There is just no excuse that those designing projects of this scale are unaware that there are communities in Tanintharyi and elsewhere in Myanmar which probably hold solutions to the very issues the GEF is trying to address.

“And to ignore this is not just colonialist, it’s stupid.”

Also on Monday, the United Nations Special Rapporteur released a report calling for local communities to have a greater say. The report cites examples of how the conservation movement “continues to work toward protecting forests, biodiversity and ecosystems in isolation and devoid of people”.