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.
The rivers of Karen territory, including the Salween, provide a means of reliable transport and trade, as well as rich fishing.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
‘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
Created with an image by Wunna Aung - "untitled image"