Myanmar’s Indigenous Population Faces Displacement From Environmentalist Group

Tanintharyi locals are facing displacement as their land has been taken and closed off for wildlife preservation efforts. This incident follows an already established trend of foreign entities curtailing Indigenous rights for the sake of inaccessible and often misinformed environmentalism. U.K. conservation group, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), is implementing the “ridge to reef” project as part of the United Nations Development Programme. It has received 21 million dollars (USD) in funding. That money will contribute to protecting 800,000 acres of the Tanintharyi region that houses precious wildlife: Asian elephants, tigers, and sun bears. While this project will ban poaching, logging, and palm oil harvesting, it will simultaneously be detrimental to Indigenous livelihoods. Thus, Tanintharyi natives, who already face the threat of displacement from the ongoing civil war, are protesting their right to live on and access the land that has historically been considered theirs.

As per Myanmar’s Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Natural Areas Law (1994), this conservation project will designate Tanintharyi natives’ land as a protected area. As a result, all destructive corporate affairs will be prohibited in the region. However, growing crops, using fallen trees to build homes, and foraging and hunting for food within the area will also be banned. Villagers are rightfully concerned as Tanintharyi’s forests are the only source of basic necessities for many. Thein Myint, a Tanintharyi native, said that his family’s main source of income is harvesting areca nuts in their land, which will become illegal under this project.

Despite this, FFI’s Myanmar programme director stated that locals’ fears of losing their claim and access to the land are based on “misrepresentation and wrong information.” At the same time, Tanintharyi natives are restricted from accessing any sort of news regarding the project. FFI maintains that they will not act without the consent from the Tahintharyi’s locals. Yet, the residents only learned about the conservation plans from members of the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT), a local environmental group. None of the project affiliated organizations attempted to contact the natives, let alone seek out their consent. Indeed, Manager of FFI’s conservation programme in Tanintharyi, Mark Grindley, insists that consulting every village before implementing the project is impractical and the plan is instead to obtain consent as “needed” over the project’s duration. This is a clear violation of Indigenous rights as prior and informed consent is discarded with FFI assuming that the land is a “free-for-all” and is in need of external managing.

Tanintharyi land has been long claimed. Villagers’ ancestors worked and lived there, harvesting areca nut plantation, as far back as 300 years. Of course, such an extended period of gathering must have heralded a substantial environmental footprint, but as another Tanintharyi’s local, U Saw Maung Chit, expressed, “[Tanintharyi residents] have chopped down trees since our childhood. They said the forests are gone because of us. Even when we chopped for the whole year, it wouldn’t be over 100 acres. The companies take 3,000 to 4,000 acres per year.”

Tanintharyi natives also can not expect assistance from the Myanmar government as it is sponsoring the project. An official of Myanmar’s environment ministry, Win Naing Thaw, asked the question, “They oppose the ridge to reef programme, but what is their commitment to preserving nature, the tigers and elephants?” First, hunting tigers and elephants is already illegal in Myanmar. Second, this claim overlooks the effects of corporate activity in the land. Third, Tanintharyi has the largest remaining intact areas of low-elevation evergreen forests in Southeast Asia. According to CAT, Tanintharyi’s forests are in excellent condition because of Indigenous conservation practices that support biodiversity. The UN corroborates this statement in a study that suggests that 80% of the world’s remaining healthy ecosystems are in Indigenous territory.

While FFI’s efforts are not to be invalidated—conservation efforts are important and effective—it is their process of implementation that is wrong and insinuates a disposable and worthless nature of Indigenous populations. It is important to come face-to-face with the history of conservation which can be linked to colonialism. Colonization often warranted the environmental degradation of Indigenous lands as colonizing powers implemented their own strenuous land use practices to enhance the economic output while discrediting Indigenous peoples and their knowledge of their native land.

It is evident that land accessibility and minority groups are historically and presently segregated. It seems that the moment a piece of land is considered valuable, the human community is separated along class or racial lines. This is adequately exemplified in this case, as FFI, a foreign conservation group, attempts to build a sort of Eden in Indigenous-held land whilst simultaneously closing off said land to its native occupants. Indigenous peoples will be displaced to achieve Western desires to create Eden which “uncivilized and barbaric” Indigenous peoples have supposedly contaminated. Consequentially, land and its local community are segregated to advance a particular sector of the Western population.

This points to how the development of our perception of the environment disadvantages and alienates minority groups. Throughout history, men had been aggressive and unsympathetic towards nature as the goal was to “master” it. For example, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions saw excessive patterns of grazing and mining. With increased awareness of the adverse effects of climate change, this hostile attitude has shifted to Indigenous and minority populations. Daw Sabel, a local of Tanintharyi, said, “People in Britain giving money to FFI need to learn about the situation on the ground here.” This highlights the issue of foreign aid and transparency.

Thus, it is important to be inclusive in discussions of conservation. Between 1990 and 2014, the UN estimates that 250,000 people were forced from their homes, sometimes violently, after their lands were turned into protected areas. The fact that poachers, loggers, and palm oil harvesters are present an issue is not debated. However, the process of coming to a solution and the solution itself must show intersectional consideration. The lack of concern for attaining the prior and informed consent of the Indigenous population evokes a belief that Indigenous communities are unable to implement and maintain conservation efforts, perpetuating the aforementioned neocolonialist beliefs. Including the native population of Tanintharyi in the conversation surrounding the protection of biodiversity will prove more sustainable to FFI’s conservation efforts since the Indigenous population can contribute significant knowledge as their lifestyles are characterized by their synergetic relationship to local natural resources. Western organizations can assist in funding, external research, and implementation on their part.

Sofia Lopez