In this Yes to Life, No to Mining emblematic case study, a collective from the Karen Environment and Social Action Network (KESAN) describe the Indigenous Karen People’s connection to their ancestral territory, and how they created the Salween Peace Park to assert their right to self-determination and protect their lands from militarism, mining and mega-dams.

The Ancestral Territory of the Karen

According to our history, the arrival of the Karen People in the forest region we now call home is the point at which the Karen calendar begins. Based on that, the Karen have lived here, in the region where we have now created the Salween Peace Park, for 2,758 years.

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 territory boasts fertile soil in both upland areas, where the 'Ku' shifting cultivation system is used to grow vegetables and other foods on a rotation that allows nature to recover.

Photo: KESAN

The rivers of Karen territory, including the Salween, provide a means of reliable transport and trade, as well as rich fishing.

Photo: KESAN

In verdant forests our Karen People forage for wild foods like bamboo shoots, banana fruits and flowers, honey, mushrooms, and edible ferns.

The forests are also home to rare and endangered animals like the Sun Bear.

Photo: Wikimedia commons

Our communities also gather forest materials to build and maintain homes, to make various tools and create our own indigenous art.

Photo: KESAN

Our ancestral territories are the repository for our history, culture, and beliefs. Karen communities are predominantly animist, and our practices and culture are deeply intertwined with and situated within the ancestral territory, 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 resources and forbid the harvesting or use of others. Breaking these taboos will have direct negative impacts on the health or fortunes of community members. They are observed seriously.

Custodians of the Kaw

The Kaw is a bio-cultural unit, a part of our wider ancestral territory, for which every member is seen as equally responsible.

Some community members, called Hteepoekawkasa, hold special knowledge for how to identify which plots are best for upland Ku (shifting agriculture) cultivation, avoiding spawning grounds for frogs and fish, and ensuring the maintenance of wildlife corridors for mammals and other species, and when certain resources should and should not be used. But it is the collective responsibility of the Kaw community as a whole to observe and enact these regulations and taboos to preserve the Kaw’s health and their own.

The practice of communal responsibility also extends from one Kaw to another. The conservation of fish in certain areas of the Kaw is seen as vital to the preservation of the Kaw system. Every year traditional leaders must perform the Lu Htee Hta, a ceremony performed to the water spirits to ensure the fertility of all cultivable land within the Kaw territory. The more fish are in the Kaw, the stronger the water spirits are, and unless the water spirits are sufficiently strong, the ceremony cannot be performed and the community risks a bad harvest.

Karen women fishing in a river. Photo: KESAN

Some of these fish conservation areas stretch over Kaw boundaries, and respective Kaw guardians encourage communities on both sides of the boundary to work together to preserve fish and stop unregulated fishing to ensure that the water spirits of both Kaws remain strong. Our communal management methods encourage conservation.

Karen communities are the best custodians of our ancestral land, which is shown by the rich biodiversity of the Salween Peace Park area, 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 local animal habitats destroyed and plant species lost, but in Karen areas healthy populations of threatened and near threatened fauna can be found.

Karen territories are home to the Sun bear, Great hornbill and gaur. Photos: Wikimedia Commons- Tambako, Manojiritty, Nishikant

Megafauna such as gaur, banteng, sun bears, and tigers have been caught on camera traps, alongside sunda pangolins, hoolock gibbons, and great hornbills. The habitats of many of these animals have been discovered nearby Karen villages, where communities have lived in peace with the nature around them for generations.

Mega-dams, Militarisation and Mining

Our forests, lands and rivers also provide security for Karen communities. For over 60 years a civil war has been conducted in Karen territory, with many Karen communities deliberately targeted and killed by Burmese soldiers to sow terror. For many Karen communities the forest has provided a safe-haven where communities can hide from soldiers, and the lands and forest products, and streams have allowed them to partially support themselves while displaced.

The Karen Conflict

The Karen conflict is regarded as one of the longest-running civil wars in the world.

Since 1949, the 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 the Salween Peace Park (SPP) are facing come from logging, mining, infrastructure projects including road and bridge construction, and series of Myanmar Government-proposed mega-hydropower dams projected to be built on the Salween River.

Communities also face threats from private agribusiness concessions which, alongside logging and mining concessions, are predominantly held by outside interests and conducted within Karen ancestral territories without their permission or any form of compensation.

Alongside these projects, increased militarisation in the region by the Burmese military has seen many communities displaced from their villages and cut off from their farmland and important forest areas.

Legitimising destruction

The laws of the Myanmar government do not recognise the tenure rights and cultural practices of Karen communities, and the incumbent government has on multiple occasions stated that it seeks to eradicate traditional forms of shifting cultivation (Ku) in the country.

Forest in Karen ancestral territory. Photo: Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative

The Myanmar Government’s forest laws seek to individualise land and forest ownership and transform land into a trade-able product. They do not accommodate traditional customary land management systems or communal land ownership. Conservation laws are heavily guided by policies of fortress conservation, seeking to evict Karen communities from ancestral territories, and the Myanmar Government’s constitution claims all land, waters, and natural resources for the Government.

This push from the Myanmar Government to monetise the natural resources and land in Karen ancestral territories, enabled by a legal framework created without the involvement or consent of indigenous Karen communities, and combined with an aggressive and violent push for territorial domination by the Burmese military, are big threats to Karen communities in the Salween Peace Park.

Gold Rush

Mining activities in particular are a continuing challenge to biocultural conservation in the Salween Peace Park. Gold and stone mining continue, and recorded mining activities have increased since the 2012 ceasefire.

Common methods of gold mining are disruptive to local flora and fauna, destroying habitats and poisoning water sources with mercury and engine oil. In parts of the Salween Peace Park area, the sheer amount of soil and silt that have to be moved to access the subterranean gold has led to river sedimentation, reducing access to clean water for drinking and bathing, and damaging aquatic ecosystems. Resultant chemical runoffs and air pollution have also caused health issues, including skin and respiratory problems.

Karen communities have reported damage to agricultural land from stone mining operations stemming from the flooding of fields and blocking of drainage ditches, and the clearing of areas for the construction of roads to mining projects.

Some villagers have reported violent threats against those that have trespassed in mining operating areas. These mining operations are run predominantly by or in collusion with national and local armed organisations to gain quick revenue, exacerbating the ongoing civil war.

Defenders of Karen lands and culture have been violently persecuted for decades, but mining represents a new source of violence.

On April 5, 2018, Saw O Moo was travelling from his home on the plains of Ler Mu Plaw to a community meeting at the Luthaw Paw Day community center, over an hour’s motorbike ride away. This meeting was held to organize humanitarian assistance for villagers forcibly displaced by recent and ongoing Burma Army attacks in the area.

Saw O Moo never reached his destination, as he was shot and killed along the way by the Burma Army. The authorities confirmed his death but never released his body, preventing his family – including his wife Naw Paw Tha and 7 young children, who had been displaced from Ler Mu Plaw on March 4th, 2018— to perform their funeral rites.

What is at stake

These threats could cause damage to Karen territory and culture in several ways if they went ahead.

Chemical runoffs from mining and industrial agriculture could poison water sources and the crops of nearby cultivators, impacting health and food security. These runoffs would also poison local biodiversity, damaging not only the ecosystem and local livelihoods, but also the health and integrity of ancestral Kaw territories.

The degradation of the forest, lands, and waters from intensive agriculture and resource extraction projects would also worsen the impacts of climate change in the area, fundamentally reshaping the biodiversity and geography of the area and rendering many Karen cultural practices either challenging or impossible to conduct.

The displacement caused by land, logging, and mining concessions, alongside infrastructure projects, the construction of mega-dams, and the expansion of Burmese military camps and transport infrastructure, will cut communities off from their traditional lands and kinship networks. This would not only have significant negative impacts on their livelihoods and resilience, but also cut them off from their cultural practices and beliefs, preventing them even from properly setting their loved ones to rest.

All of this is exacerbated by the total absence of legal and political recognition of the rights of Karen communities by the forces driving these destructive projects.

Decades of Resistance

Karen communities have resisted externally imposed destructive development projects for decades.

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 they face.

In recent decades these protests have been primarily focussed on the continued presence of the Burma army in Karen territory, and the threat that this poses to communities lives and livelihoods, and protest against a cascade of Thai and Chinese backed mega hydropower dams proposed to be built on the Salween river.

Organising community gatherings, protests and Karen organising and learning spaces have been key to success. Photos: YLNM and Irrawaddy.

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, and smaller protests are conducted throughout the year against specific proposed development and/or investment projects, and the continued presence of and increased militarisation of the area by the Burma 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.

At these gatherings and other events including youth camps and events celebrating Karen traditional knowledge and customs communities express their identity and connection to the natural environment around them and make public statements on the danger posed to this invaluable relationship by conflict and proposed development projects.

Supported by Karen civil society, large numbers of reports, documentaries, and songs have also been produced upscaling community stories and their concern about proposed and ongoing destructive development in the area, alongside reports recording and celebrating Karen traditional knowledge and its key role in nature stewardship.

Karen New Year celebrated with song and traditional dress.

The largest of these celebrations of Karen identity and nature stewardship is the Salween Peace Park itself, which through its three pillars of 1) peace and self-determination, 2) environmental integrity, and 3) cultural survival, is the manifestation of local indigenous Karens’ vision for a peaceful and stable life that is built upon and respectful of their traditions and ancestral territories.

While tangible successes can be difficult to measure in a context like the one the indigenous Karen are living in, there are some indicators of success. The most significant of these concerns the proposed series of mega hydropower dams planned for the Salween river.

The Dams

The Hatgyi Dam, Dagwin Dam, and Weigyi Dam, have been on the books since the late 1990s with feasibility studies conducted and MoUs signed in most cases. Despite this, construction on all three dams has not yet begun and two of the three dam sites remain untouched.

There has been fierce community resistance and protest around these dam sites for decades, supported by local administrative bodies, which have made the construction of these dams considerably difficult and risky for investors. It is our belief that the continued protests and activism of communities is a key factor in the ongoing prevention of these dams.

More information:

The People's Hope: Salween Peace Park

Our most tangible success is the declaration of the Salween Peace Park in December 2018 and resulting election of its General Assembly and Governing Committee in April 2019.

The Salween Peace Park is a collective grassroots effort by the indigenous Karen communities of Mutraw District to protect their lives, livelihoods, culture, and the nature within which they live from destructive development projects and the impacts of the Burmese military’s ongoing presence.

The SPP acts as a way for communities to take their future and recovery from conflict into their own hands in an area where Burmese government services and administration are non-existent. Simultaneously, it is a demonstration by indigenous Karen communities that genuine administrative, fiscal, and political decentralisation of governance in a potential future federal system is a viable and beneficial model for Burma.

Rooted in Karen customary management systems, the Salween Peace Park expands the Indigenous Karen cultural ethic that integrates sustainable livelihoods, nature protection and democratic governance to the landscape level.

The Park’s long-term aim is to demonstrate what truly good governance could be for the Salween River Basin and provide a people-centred alternative to the top-down, militarised development that has been pushed in the region by previous regimes. By doing so, the project expands the conversation around governance beyond mere management of resources to address issues of militarisation, conflict, displacement, resource capture, and destructive development.

‘A living vision, not just a national park’

"The Salween Peace Park is a grassroots, people-centered alternative to the previous Myanmar government and foreign companies’ plans for destructive development in the Salween River basin. Instead of massive dams on the Salween River, we see small hydropower and decentralized solar power. Instead of large-scale mining and rubber plantations, we call for eco-tourism, sustainable forest management, agroforestry and organic farming. Instead of megaprojects that threaten conflict and perhaps the resumption of war, we seek a lasting peace and a thriving ecosystem where people live in harmony with the nature around them. The new Myanmar government has promised to lead the country toward a devolved, federal democracy. The Karen are not waiting idly for this: the Salween Peace Park is federal democracy in action." - KESAN

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 Myanmar government 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 in relation to surrounding stakeholders. Channelled through the SPP General Assembly, which also comprises representatives from Karen governance bodies, individual communities in the area are able to add their voices to those of their neighbours and present a strong united front in opposition to the destructive development and militarisation that threatens their everyday pursuits.

A local governance structure has been established, with power emanating from the grassroots upwards, and a charter representing the principles laid out by the SPP’s communities has been ratified. Members of the General Assembly are now working with knowledgeable community members in a series of working groups to strengthen the governance 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.

Though Indigenous Peoples, minority groups, and local communities have been through similar forms of violations, persecutions, and oppression under feudalistic and imperialist governments who are obsessed with the mentality of exploitation and destruction, we will never be vanished nor go extinct as long as we are resilient and determined in our struggle.

Indigenous Peoples’ movements to protect their ancestral lands are becoming a global phenomenon. We believe that through our concerted efforts and solidarity, our self-determination rights over our ancestral lands will be recognised, respected and protected.

Our struggle is the right and just one because we are not only saving ourselves, we are saving Mother Earth from complete destruction.

This emblematic case is part of the Yes to Life, No to Mining series exploring how communities around our living planet are successfully defending their lands, waters and livelihoods from mining, and building life-sustaining alternatives.

Brought to you by the global YLNM Network. Dedicated to all the living beings of Salween Peace Park. Produced in alliance with KESAN.


Created with an image by Wunna Aung - "untitled image"