Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Weekly Highlights: Locally-led Initiatives – A Path towards Achieving Long-term Sustainable Development and Peace



Locally-led Initiatives – A Path towards Achieving Long-term Sustainable Development and Peace  

Photo credit: Salween River and the peace park (Photo-KESAN)





A new report published on palm oil plantations by several local civil society organizations in an ethnic Karen area of Tanintharyi Region demonstrates the serious negative social, environmental and economic impacts that irresponsible investment in conflict or post-conflict areas can have. Yet at the same time, a crucial example of a locally led development initiative - the 'Salween Peace Park,' - preserves culture, tradition and the local environment and leads the way for sustainable development.

The report, 'Green Desert,' which was released on 12 January, 2017 by Tarkapaw, Trip Net, Southern Youth, Candle Light, Khaing Myae Thitsar, Myeik Lawyer Network, and Dawei Development Association, presents the damage that palm oil plantations – of which 1.8 million acres of concessions have been awarded in Tanintharyi Region – are having on the local people and the environment. It uses the example of a joint venture of the Malaysian company – Prestige Platform – and Stark Industries from Myanmar which together form the Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation (MSPP). Due to a lack of transparency, the plantation size is not accurately known, but it is estimated to be between 42,000 – 49,000 acres in southern Tanintharyi Region. The area has long been a theatre of armed conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar[1] Army, with many villagers fleeing due to fighting and human rights abuses. Since the 2012 ceasefire between the KNU and the Myanmar Government, however, the MSPP project has accelerated.

Yet the villagers who have lived on this land for generations have been given no say in what happens to their ancestral home. Due to the upheaval of war, they do not have official government documents for the land which the MSPP is now cultivating. Many of those villagers who have lost their land now work as day laborers on the plantation or are running up debts. Speaking at the press conference, local villager, Saw En P'reh, stated, "They took our land by force. We changed from landowners to workers. It [the palm oil project] had many negative impacts on us." Furthermore, the runoff from pesticides and chemicals used by MSPP are creating health problems for local villagers, polluting water sources and poisoning livestock. This is typical of palm oil plantations which have been widely criticized for the severe environmental destruction caused in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The MSPP has affected six villages totalling approximately 4,480 people. Thus, the CSOs who authored the report are calling for a moratorium on large-scale investment projects, for the MSPP to stop its operations and to return thus far unused land back to the villagers or compensate for land that has been planted on.

Further north in Karen areas, however, a different project is demonstrating how post-ceasefire, locally-led development initiatives can benefit local communities and provide sustainable solutions. The 'Salween Peace Park' is the antithesis to the MSPP and other damaging investment projects in Karen State such as gold mining operations. It is a 5,200 sqkm sanctuary that protects both indigenous heritage and the natural environment within its boundaries. Furthermore, it involves an ongoing genuinely inclusive and participatory community consultation process from 23 village tracts. Saw Paul Sein Twa, Executive Director of one of the leading CSOs behind the park – Karen Environmental and Social Action Network - explained, "The Peace Park initiative is committed to being inclusive and transparent, and whenever there are any development projects or investments of any kind, the indigenous and local people can look to the democratically determined spirit and vision for the Salween Peace Park first. Will these developments be aligned with people's aspirations? In the Salween Peace Park, the people will be the ones to evaluate whether proposed development projects are good or bad for their communities."

Both the MSPP and the Salween Peace Park offer contrasting visions of a future for not just ethnic Karen communities, but other ethnic nationality communities throughout Myanmar. If the post-ceasefire dividends go to large companies that benefit from the exploitation of land and people such as with the MSPP, any future peace would be a hollow victory as indigenous people would suffer the negative consequences of rapacious investment and unequal allocation of their natural resources.  If, however, local communities are able to preserve their culture and heritage, such as through the Salween Peace Park, a viable, sustainable and locally-led development can be pursued. After all, the meaning of sustainable development and what kind of development is needed should be defined by the local people themselves. Thus, any development plans can only be truly beneficial with the meaningful involvement, initiation and participation of local communities in all stages, including decision making.

The government must give people a chance to set their own future and define and design the development of their communities and environment as they see best for the sustainable preservation of their culture, heritage, environment and livelihoods. As a country in transition, Myanmar should learn the lessons from other transitioning countries' failed development processes and support locally-led initiatives such as the 'Salween Peace Park.' Not only will development be sustainable, but the chances of a long-term sustainable peace will be enhanced.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten.




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Green Desert: Communities in Tanintharyi Renounce the MSPP Oil Palm Concession
By Candle Light, Khaing Myae Thitsar, Myeik Lawyer Network and Dawei Development Association, Southern Youth, Tarkapaw and Tenasserim River & Indigenous People Networks

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By Candle Light, Khaing Myae Thitsar, Myeik Lawyer Network and Dawei Development Association, Southern Youth, Tarkapaw and Tenasserim River & Indigenous People Networks

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Urgent Humanitarian Situation update in Kachin State, 11th January 2017

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About Progressive Voice


Progressive Voice is a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 the same day that Progressive Voice was formally established. For further information, please see our press release "Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice."


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