A living vision, not just a national park.
The Karen People have lived in our forest home for 2,758 years according to our calendar. Our lands and waters play many important roles in everyday life and in our future prosperity. They are core to the subsistence practices of our communities.
Karen territories boast fertile soil, where the ‘Ku’ shifting cultivation system is used to grow vegetables and other foods rotationally, allowing nature to recover. The rivers of our Karen territories, including the Salween, provide a means of reliable transport and trade, as well as a rich source of fish. Our people forage for wild foods like bamboo shoots, banana fruits and flowers, honey, mushrooms, and edible ferns in verdant forests.
We peacefully coexist with rare and endangered animals like the Sun Bear. Our communities gather forest materials to build and maintain homes, to make various tools and create art.
Our ancestral territories are a repository for our history, culture, and beliefs. Karen communities are predominantly animist, and our practices and culture are deeply intertwined with and situated within our ancestral territories, which we call Kawthoolei.
For our communities, the conservation of nature is vital to the conservation of our own culture. The health of one directly corresponds to the health and prosperity of the other. This is expressed through cultural traditions and taboos that encourage sustainable use of some resources and forbid the harvesting or use of others. They are observed seriously.
We are the best custodians of our ancestral territories. This is demonstrated by the rich biodiversity of Kawthoolei, which is situated in the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot and is of global significance to nature conservation.
Many areas in Myanmar have been deforested, with animal habitats destroyed, and plant species lost, but in our Karen homeland healthy populations of threatened and near threatened wildlife can thrive.
For decades our culture and Kawthoolei homeland have been under assault. The conflict in this region is one of the longest-running civil wars in the world. Since 1949, a year after Myanmar gained independence from Britain, the Karen have been fighting for political independence from Myanmar.
In over 70 years of armed conflict, many thousands of Karen people have experienced genocide, torture, and sexual violence at the hands of the armed forces of Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced throughout the course of the conflict, with many fleeing to Thailand or becoming internally displaced peoples.
More recently, the main challenges that communities in Kawthoolei face derive from logging, mining, infrastructure projects including road and bridge construction, and a series of government-proposed mega-hydropower dams on the Salween River. Communities also face threats from private agribusiness, logging and mining concessions, which are predominantly granted to outside interests and conducted within Karen ancestral territories without communities’ permission or any form of compensation.
A living vision, not just a national park.
The Myanmar Government’s constitution claims all land, waters, and natural resources for the government. Created without the involvement or consent of indigenous communities, these laws do not recognise the tenure rights and cultural practices of the Karen people. They seek to evict Karen communities from ancestral territories and eradicate traditional forms of ‘Ku’ shifting cultivation.
The Myanmar Government’s push for territorial domination and the monetisation of natural resources and land, conducted through military violence, is destructive to the Karen Peoples and our lands.
Mining activities continuously create challenges for our culture, livelihoods and traditional forms of conservation. Common methods of gold mining are disruptive to local wildlife, destroying habitats and poisoning water sources with mercury and engine oil.
In parts of Kawthoolei, the sheer amount of soil and silt that have to be moved to access the subterranean gold has led to river sedimentation, reduced access to clean water for drinking and bathing, and damaged aquatic ecosystems. Resultant chemical runoffs and air pollution have also caused health issues, including skin and respiratory problems. Yet gold and stone mining continue and recorded mining activities have increased since the 2012 ceasefire.
Karen communities have resisted these externally imposed destructive development projects since they began during the colonial era. During the time of British colonial control, communities worked together to protest British logging concessions in Karen ancestral territories, and negotiated with local British administrative officers to resolve disputes between them and communities.
Since Burma’s independence, Karen communities have continuously called for the recognition of their rights to their ancestral territories and a peaceful and stable life. This has primarily taken the form of public protests, and the creation and dissemination of reports, documentaries, and songs about the issues of destructive development and impacts of armed conflict that we face.
In recent decades these protests have been primarily focused on the continued presence of the Burmese army in Karen territories, and the threat this poses to communities’ lives and livelihoods. Protests have also resisted Thai and Chinese-backed mega hydropower dams proposed to be built on the Salween River.
Karen communities have used a broad variety of strategies to resist unwanted and destructive activities in Karen areas. Public protests and marches are conducted annually on March 14th, the International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams, while smaller protests are conducted throughout the year against specific proposed development and/or investment projects, and the increased militarisation of the area by the Myanmar Army.
Communities also resist through celebration, gathering together to promote and strengthen Karen culture and history on important days throughout the year including August 9th, World Indigenous Peoples’ Day, January 31st, Karen Revolution Day, and Karen New Year which is on a different day each year based on the Karen calendar.
Our most tangible success from these decades of resistance is the declaration of the Salween Peace Park in December 2018, and subsequent election of its General Assembly and Governing Committee in April 2019.
The Salween Peace Park is a grassroots, people-centered alternative to the Myanmar government and foreign companies’ plans for destructive development in the Salween River basin.
Instead of massive dams on the Salween River, we propose small hydropower and decentralised solar power. Instead of large-scale mining and rubber plantations, we call for eco-tourism, sustainable forest management, agroforestry and organic farming. Instead of mega projects that create conflicts and threaten the resumption of war, we seek a lasting peace and a thriving ecosystem where people live in harmony with nature.
The Salween Peace Park empowers our indigenous Karen communities to guide local development and conservation in line with traditional knowledge and cultural practices. By basing local governance in the hands of the community, the Salween Peace Park enables the conservation of nature and Karen culture, and the pursuit of a peaceful and stable life for local communities, something that is denied to them by the Myanmar government’s laws and military ambitions.
In bringing the many efforts of communities across the area together into a coordinated unit, the SPP also seeks to upscale and strengthen the voices and aims of its communities. The SPP General Assembly is comprised of representatives from individual communities and Karen governing bodies, allowing communities to voice their opinions and concerns, and support their neighbours to present a strong united front in opposition to the destructive development and militarisation that threatens their everyday lives.
Local governance structures have been established, with power stemming from the grassroots-level upwards, and a charter representing the principles laid out by the SPP’s communities has already been developed. Members of the General Assembly are now working with knowledgeable community members in a series of working groups to strengthen the governing body and develop a series of initiatives to improve the lives of Karen communities inside the SPP. A master plan is also being developed, guided by local communities, to build a roadmap towards achieving their aspirations of peace and self-determination, environmental integrity, and cultural survival.
The new Myanmar government has promised to lead the country toward a devolved, federal democracy, but, so far they have not delivered. The Karen are not waiting idly for this: the Salween Peace Park is federal democracy in action.
This article was written collectively by members of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN). KESAN is a community-based, non-governmental, non-profit organisation that works to improve livelihood security and to gain respect for indigenous people’s knowledge and rights in Karen State of Burma, where the violence and inequities of more than 60 years of civil war have created one of the most impoverished regions in the world. Visit KESAN's website to find out more.
This article was originally published by Radical Ecological Democracy as the last in a five-part series exploring the stories of the communities mentioned in this article. The Ecologist will be collaborating with Radical Ecological Democracy to share these articles in the months to come.
The interactive case studies upon which this series is based have been developed by YLNM member communities and organisations with the support of YLNM’s Regional Coordinators. The network’s deepest thanks go to: Snowchange Cooperative and the village of Selkie (Finland), Froxán Commoning Community and ContraMINAccíon (Galicia), Karen Environmental and Social Action Network and Kalikasan PNE (Myanmar and Philippines), Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida and COSAJUCA (Colombia), Alliance of Solwara Warriors (Papua New Guinea).
Thanks to Maynie Yang for her support editing this article.