Paul Sein Taw grew up in the mountains of Myanmar’s Kayin State, surrounded by lush teak forests and the rivers and streams that fed the mighty Salween River. His family’s livelihood depended on the Salween, Asia’s longest free-flowing river that runs nearly 1,750 miles from the Tibetan Plateau, through Myanmar and Thailand before merging into the Andaman Sea. Sein Twa remembers floating along its waters on a boat, watching deer, bears, and other wildlife gather along the banks to drink. He remembers the time his father caught a fish so big, they had to tie it to a bamboo pole and have two people carry it home, fin dragging on the ground.
“My father would return with lots of fish — so plentiful, so plentiful,” he says, shaking his head wistfully. “I think, if we can come back to that, to those days… Of course, things have changed, we have to adapt to that.”
Things have changed — an understatement if ever there was one.
Sein Taw is an Indigenous Karen, whose people have been fighting for self-determination and cultural survival for more than seven decades, since before Myanmar gained independence from British rule in 1948. The second-largest ethnic minority in Myanmar, the Karen peoples’ armed conflict with the Myanmar government continues to this day. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar’s armies engaged in violent campaigns targeting Karen civilians, forcing millions to flee to refugee camps along the Thai border. Multiple efforts to negotiate peace have failed.
Sein Twa, who’s 47, was born amid this conflict and eventually, it caught up with his family as well. In 1984, when he was about 10, his family had to flee from their village. From then on, they were constantly on the move between refugee camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border in an effort to evade the Myanmarese army. But through all those moves back and forth, the forest, the rivers, and wildlife were ever-present companions. Not just for him, but for all Karen, who believe that water land, forests, rivers are living entities with whom humans have a spiritual and reciprocal relationship.
“Our way of life is connected to the land and forests and nature… so it is not new that Karen people love their environment and are custodians of their territory,” Sein Twa says.
The Karen people’s home, the Salween River Basin, also holds some of the last remaining intact wilderness areas in mainland Southeast Asia, supporting rare and endangered species such as tigers, endangered Sunda pangolins, clouded leopards, gibbons, Asiatic black bears, and sun bears. Decades of conflict, which kept the region isolated from much of the world, have actually helped maintain this biodiversity. But now, as Myanmar transitions from military dictatorship to market-driven democracy, “development” in the form of increased logging, agribusiness, and mining and dam projects is creeping into the area.
The Salween Peace Park provides a peaceful grassroots alternative for its Karen custodians in the face of generations of violent repression and civil war. Photos courtesy of KESAN.
KESAN works with remote Karen communities to map ancestral boundaries, conduct wildlife surveys, and establish local committees to monitor forest incursions.
In 1998, when the central government proposed the $2.6 billion, 1,360-megawatt Hatgyi Dam in the southern Salween basin, in the heart of Karen territory, Sein Twa saw the writing on the wall. By that time, he was a young teacher, dividing his time between Chang Mai and educating children at the refugee camps. He had been noting the rise in logging in the region and the gradual encroachment of army encampments into the forests. The dam, he realized, was part of a greater “plan by the government to take control of our territory and wipe us out of our land.”
Determined to unite his people’s struggle for self-determination with protection of their natural and cultural heritage, in 2001, Sein Twa co-founded the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a community-based environmental and Indigenous rights group.
Initially, KESAN’s work focused on collecting evidence of illegal logging in Karen territory, but soon the group began to work with communities to map ancestral boundaries, conduct wildlife surveys, and establish local committees to monitor forest incursions. It also built a training center, set up agroforestry demonstration plots, and trained locals in GPS use and GIS mapping. Sein Twa began to connect with international conservation groups and to explore community-based approaches to land conservation as well. “We did not want to repeat the conventional [Western national] park model and its problems in our area,” he says. The intention was to develop a model that would protect their land that was based on local, Indigenous land-management systems.
Eventually, he learned about peace parks — protected areas spanning boundaries of more than one country, or sub-national entity — which seek to use the common goal of conservation of a region’s biodiversity to promote peacebuilding. Such parks can contribute to building a durable peace between citizens and governments. The Red Sea Marine Peace Park, for instance, was created as part of the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which specifies joint protection of the coral reefs that border both countries. In 1998, Peru and Ecuador established the Cordillera del Condor Peace Transborder Reserve.
In early 2012, when the political arm of the Karen people — the Karen National Union (KNU) — signed an initial ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government, Sein Twa and other KESAN members used the relative lull in violence in the region to begin visiting Karen villages to talk with people and cultivate a vision for community self-determination and land preservation that involved numerous public consultations, seminars, and educational meetings with 348 villages. The process took several years.
In the meantime, tensions between the Karen and the central government continued to simmer despite the ceasefire deal being formalized in 2015, especially because, contrary to the ceasefire agreement, military camps continued to operate on Karen lands.
“In recent years, at least five villagers were killed by the [government] army and one of them was our close friend [Saw O Moo] who was a strong advocate for the peace park, who was killed in April 2018,” Sein Twa says. “That was tragic for us, but his legacy and his dreams keep us strong.”
Soon after, in October 2018, the KNU temporarily disengaged from formal peace negotiations because its positions on land and resource management wasn’t incorporated into the draft peace agreement.
“Currently the government policy is everything underground and above it, including air space, belong to the government and people only have usage rights,” Sein Twa explains. And that, he says, is the root cause of 70 years of civil war in the region.
Despite these setbacks, in December 2018, the Karen people went ahead and officially declared the creation of the Salween Peace Park — a more than 50,000-hectare swath of land in Kayin state that includes 27 community forests and three wildlife sanctuaries managed by local Karen communities according to the Karen land governance system known as kaw. In addition to the region’s rich biodiversity, the park also protects the last dam-free major river in Asia and provides a peaceful grassroots alternative for its Karen custodians in the face of generations of violent repression and civil war.
“The strategy is to power the local communities to have strong regulations within the kaw, which would make it difficult to grab land,” say Sein Twa, who is the park’s president. “As a collective voice we can have a stronger voice against such activities.”
(The park and its management model were the subject of an in-depth feature in Journal’s Spring 2020 issue.)
The Myanmar government hasn’t recognized the park officially, but Sein Twa is hopeful that it eventually will do so.
“We all know that in Burma the last remaining good forests fall within Indigenous territories. So for the government to meet its international commitments to protect its biodiversity, all this cannot be done without collaboration of the Indigenous people and ethnic nationalities,” he says. “So how is the government going to do that? Is it going to come in with guns, drag out people and set up fortress conservation? I don’t think that can happen. It would lead to more civil war. The government needs to learn from other countries that recognize the rights of Indigenous people.”
And to do that, he says, it needs to remove the military camp from Karen territories, especially agricultural lands. “It would be a significant step to really earn the trust of the communities” and would help reinvigorate the peace talks, which have been stalled, in part because of ongoing pandemic.
Sein Twa and other KESAN activists hope that the successful management of the peace park and the growing international recognition it has been receiving will help influence the government to reform its policy regarding land and forest management. They are especially hopeful about the ruling National League for Democracy, which was re-elected to power in November, will offer them space to engage. The party has announced that it would be inviting ethnic minority parties to work with it, an offer it hadn’t made in during the last election cycle in 2015.
KESAN is now working with local and international allies to set up similar peace park initiatives in other Karen areas as well as in the territories of other Indigenous communities in Myanmar and in adjacent north-eastern India. “If we have more examples of successful case studies then it would be easier to convince the government,” Sein Twa says. “We have to make it easy for government to learn from us.”
Such work, of course, comes with great risk in a country like Myanmar. When I spoke with Sein Twa over Zoom earlier this month, he was at an undisclosed location in Thailand for personal security reasons. He can’t really ever reveal exactly where he lives, though he does admit that he now splits his time between the peace park and KESAN’s Thailand office.
“I’m a stranger at home,” he says, sadly. But, he adds, whenever he feels demoralized, he makes an effort to travel to Karen villages and meet with his people. “Seeing their smiling faces, hearing their stories, laughing, eating together, seeing the landscapes, climbing the mountains, breathing the fresh air of the forest … those things really reenergize me,” he says. “It makes me think of how our forefathers died protecting our territories. It’s our duty to protect it for our children, and that gives me inner strength to overcome challenges.”
For his decades of tireless work to protect Karen lands, Sein Twa has been awarded this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize along with five other activists from across the world. The other winners are:
Chibeze Ezekiel of Ghana, whose four-year grassroots campaign led to the scrapping of a 700-megawatt coal power plant and adjoining shipping port project, thus steering the nation’s energy future away from coal.
Kristal Ambrose of The Bahamas, who convinced her country’s government to ban single-use plastic bags, plastic cutlery, straws, and Styrofoam containers and cups. Announced in April 2018, the nationwide ban went into effect in January 2020.
Leydy Pech, an Indigenous Mayan beekeeper, who led a coalition to successfully halt Monsanto’s planting of genetically modified soybeans in southern Mexico. Because of the persistence of Pech and her coalition, in September 2017, Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Service revoked Monsanto’s permit to grow genetically modified soybeans in seven states.
Lucie Pinson, who successfully helped pressure France’s three largest banks to eliminate financing for new coal projects and coal companies in 2017. Pison also compelled French insurance companies to follow suit: between 2017 and 2019, mega insurers AXA and SCOR announced plans to end insurance coverage for coal projects.
Nemonte Nenquimo of Ecuador led an Indigenous campaign and legal action that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction. The lawsuit set a legal precedent for Indigenous rights in Ecuador, and other tribes are following in her footsteps to protect their lands.
Normally, the winners are awarded the prize in-person at a ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House in April, but this year, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the prize will be awarded virtually and shared online at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time (7 p.m. Eastern) today.
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