Peace is a rare commodity in Myanmar, a country riven by ethnic disputes, ravaged by military overlords, and home to millions of people displaced by conflicts. But in the forested mountains of the country’s remote east, where it borders Thailand, the local Karen people have turned a war zone into a park of peace, centered on one of the last free-flowing international rivers in the world, the Salween.
The Salween Peace Park is being lauded as a model for conservation that draws less on Western science and more on ethnic cultural traditions of foraging for wild foods, taboos on hunting, and forest-friendly farming. In recognition, the Goldman Environmental Prize is being awarded this week to the park’s president and founder, Paul Sein Twa, who calls it “Indigenous self-determination and community protection of natural and cultural heritage.”
But Sein Twa, as well as the park and the Karen autonomous government that established it, remains unrecognized and ostracized by Myanmar — a situation unchanged by this month’s reelection of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as the nation’s civilian leader.
The Karen people have long sought autonomy within the country formerly known as Burma. And through decades of conflict since independence from the British in 1948, their leaders in the Karen National Union (KNU) have effectively run large areas of Karen State, with a strong emphasis on environmental goals. A ceasefire between the KNU’s armed forces and the Myanmar government has been in place since 2012. By holding off efforts by the country’s longtime military leaders to take over their land for logging, mining, rubber plantations, highways, and dams, they have ensured the state retains one of the highest rates of forest cover in the country, at 74 percent.
Control of the forests in the Salween park is largely in the hands of villages operating according to traditional law.
The peace park, established by the KNU two years ago, is the jewel in their crown of ecological self-determination. It is almost twice the size of Yosemite National Park, with control of the forests largely in the hands of villages operating according to traditional laws.
Much of the conservation strategy — and the origins of the peace park plan — come from Sein Twa and a group of activists who 19 years ago founded the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), with the aim of protecting both the environment and the culture of the Karen people in Myanmar.
“Most of us were young students affected by the conflict,” says Sein Twa, whose family was forced into exile by soldiers when he was a child. “We had witnessed the destruction of our territory and were motivated to protect our communities, our environment, and our way of life. We wanted to revitalize traditional practices with stewardship of the land and the natural environment,” he said in an interview with Yale Environment 360.
Initially, that meant investigating illegal logging, creating small protected areas within Karen-held territory, and establishing community forests for people displaced by the war with the government. A ceasefire agreed between the central government and the KNU in 2012 brought new opportunities for conservation, but also new threats. “It created an open door for land grabs by outside investors,” says Sein Twa. “Loggers, gold miners, and hydropower engineers, including from China and Thailand and supported by the military cronies in government, wanted to come onto our land.”
That, he says, was when he and his friends at KESAN conceived the idea of a peace park. “We looked at the scale of the threat, and decided we could no longer just protect small areas [as nature reserves or community forests]. We needed to work at a landscape scale, to conserve our ancestral forests, mountains, and rivers. But we also wanted a bottom-up Indigenous approach to conservation, based on our traditions.”
So instead of inviting in foreign experts to create a Western-style national park, Sein Twa and his team held meetings in 348 villages in the forested hills of the Mutraw district, home to about 70,000 people. Slowly, they drew up a detailed charter for a park that pledged to protect “the ecological and cultural integrity of land areas considered to be ancestral domain.” Put to a referendum, it won 75 percent support, and was launched in December 2018, with community representatives, who make up the majority of the park’s ruling committee, elected at a park-wide general assembly in the village of Day Bu Noh four months later.
With support from KNU forest rangers and funding from the Rainforest Trust in Norway, the communities have now mapped the park, delineated community ownership, and documented its biodiversity. It contains 27 community forests and three wildlife sanctuaries, but most of its 1.4 million acres is within 132 customary land holdings under a land-use tradition of the Karen people that combines culture, spirituality, and conservation, known as kaw.
The kaw system is underpinned by the animist beliefs of most Karen. It divides the land into sacred areas, burial grounds, protected forests, areas for shifting upland cultivation, forest gardens, orchards, lowland rice paddy, and other categories. It also “maintains taboos about things such as where and what we can hunt, and where people can cultivate crops,” says Sein Twa. “Between 70 and 80 percent of the peace park is under communal kaw management.”
It is a brave delegation of power for what is still a rebel state government under constant threat from the national military, says Shona Looma, a geographer at Oxford University, who has researched Karen governance. “I have not come across anything like it among other insurgent groups.”
Spiritually, kaw is under the control of a priesthood of hereditary male spiritual leaders who “communicate with the guardian spirits,” says Sein Twa. But in practice these priests work according to democratic decisions taken in their village meeting halls. “We have collective leadership,” he says. “The way we see it, we are custodians of the land. We don’t own it; we take care of it.”
Under the Karen system, families are allocated land for growing crops, but must move on each year to allow the forest to recover.
The kaw system is as old as the Karen, but the peace park’s charter is the first time that its rules have been formally codified and written down, says Pai Deetes, a longtime social activist in the region and campaign director of International Rivers, a California-based anti-dams NGO. Despite the male spiritual leaders, women are often at the heart of village decision-making, as well as maintaining cultural and craft traditions, including farming, she says. “The Salween Peace Park is one of the most democratic government processes I have ever seen. The public participation, from villagers and farmers, women and youth is amazing. Everyone is involved, even children. They are taught it in schools.”
Under the kaw system, farmers usually practice shifting cultivation. Families are allocated forest land that they can clear to grow crops, says Sein Twa, and they move on each year to allow the forest to recover. “After 10 years they can return. But they can only do this twice. After that another family takes over.” The system both protects the forests and “prevents any idea of individual ownership of land,” he says.
Shifting cultivation in tropical forests has often been denigrated by conservationists as “slash and burn” and blamed as a major cause of deforestation. But many ecologists now argue that it can be a sustainable way of farming in forests. Certainly, centuries of kaw cultivation by the Karen in eastern Myanmar have successfully protected one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Southeast Asia, rich in species of global importance.
A 2017 survey using camera traps, conducted by KESAN and funded by WWF (World Wildlife Fund), found tigers, leopards, elephants, black and sun bears, gaur wild cattle, Phayre’s leaf monkeys, and Asiatic wild dogs, among 17 threatened mammal species in and around the peace park. The study’s authors concluded that “the stewardship of the Karen people, including socially inherited taboos, which protect threatened species from hunting, is directly responsible for the persistence of biodiversity in the region.”
Besides becoming a key instrument in saving some of the most important rainforests of mainland Southeast Asia, the peace park is central to another conservation battle — to secure the continuing undammed state of the Salween River. The river, which rises in Chinese Tibet and flows for 1,750 miles through Thailand and Myanmar to the Indian Ocean, is the last major free-flowing river in the region. It has survived numerous dam proposals along its length.
In Myanmar, Deetes says the biggest threat today is the proposed Hatgyi hydroelectric dam, a $2.6 billion project planned by the Myanmar government, with the Chinese state-owned dam-building giant Sinohydro, to supply electricity to neighboring Thailand. It was first proposed in 1998, and construction on a series of rapids in Karen territory was slated to start in 2007.
The Myanmar military has ever since occupied the proposed dam site. But vocal opposition by the Karen, coupled with international pressure to protect the Salween River, has so far deterred construction, and the site now also lies within the peace park. “In early 2018, about 2,000 people were driven out of the area by the military,” says Sein Twa. “They are still living in a temple compound, because they haven’t dared go home.” During the clashes, one of Sein Twa’s closest colleagues, wildlife researcher, community leader, and peace park founder Saw O Moo was shot dead in a community forest.
Altogether, there are around 60 military camps within the peace park, according to KESAN activist Hsa Moo. Many are connected by roads that pass through kaw territories. “People try to farm in the shadows of the men who killed their relatives and burned down their homes,” she wrote recently. Earlier this year, another community leader, Saw Thet Mee, was killed by soldiers after crossing a military road in the park. Meanwhile, the KNU says soldiers have destroyed several Covid-19 screening stations it set up on the roads.
The fate of the peace park and its Indigenous techniques of conservation may ultimately depend on the outcome of Myanmar’s troubled politics. In 2016, military leaders allowed elections that resulted in a quasi-civilian government led by the country’s internationally-feted human rights leader and Nobel Prize winner Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
“One day, the national government has to change its policies to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples,” says Sein Twa.
But the military continues to hold sway over the country. In 2017, it was responsible for a massive security sweep that involved setting fire to hundreds of villages in the north of the country occupied by the Muslim Rohingya minority, after which almost a million fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Suu Kyi’s international reputation as a defender of human rights has suffered badly, and while the ceasefire with other ethnic groups such as the Karen largely persists, her government has failed to deliver substantive progress on peace talks.
In 2018, the government of Suu Kyi passed a Vacant Land Law that offered rural communities the opportunity to apply for recognition of their land rights. But it was hedged with caveats, did not recognize the kaw system, and gave communities just six months to register. “The law still gives ultimate authority to the state to grab land from the people — and from nature,” says Sein Twa. “It was really a way to wipe out all the existing customary land tenure rights of our communities. So we told our people to do nothing.”
At the most recent general election on November 8, five ethnic groups — the Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, and Mon — formed a united front party on a platform of revising the Myanmar constitution to create a federal system of government, with greater autonomy for their people. But they failed to win many seats in the new parliament, and Suu Kyi was returned for a second term.
Despite the standoff over self-determination and land rights, Karen conservationists maintain informal links with non-military parts of the national government and hope for a peaceful outcome. “We don’t negotiate with them. The time is not right for that yet,” says Sein Twa. “But there are parliamentary channels, and we meet forest officials at conferences.”
Others too see a potential green path to peace in Myanmar. Stephen Gray of the NGO International Alert, in a 2019 report for the British government’s Department for International Development, wrote that “forestry management provides a peacebuilding opportunity” in the country. It “provides an opportunity to recognize the rights, practices, and governance responsibility of ethnic minorities [by] promoting smaller, scalable, and Karen-led natural resource management initiatives, rather than large-scale development or conservation projects.”
Sein Twa puts it another way. “One day, the national government has to change its policies to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. It will happen. But we can’t sit and wait. We will make it happen.”