Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conflict Threatens Karen Biodiversity

The Irrawaddy News
November 18, 2008

BANGKOK — on top of 60 years of military occupation, the Karen people of Burma are now facing severe impairment of their environmental and cultural foundations, say activists.

Burma’s incredibly rich and highly endemic biodiversity has a recorded 11,800 plant species including a species-collection of 800 orchids, 100 bamboos, 1,000 birds and 145 globally threatened mammals.

A great part of this biodiversity is found in Karen State in southeastern Burma bordering Thailand, now suffering heavily due to the ongoing conflict between the government’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the Karen National Union (KNU).

The conflict has displaced more than 500,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) within Karen State. Most are now living in the forests.

Civilians have become the target of the Burmese military as the SPDC aims to weaken the KNU by cutting off provisions and support from local Karen. And, according to Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), there is a toll on the environment as well.

In the forests, IDP families sleep in makeshift shelters on open ground. Healthcare and education are non-existent and the majority is severely malnourished.

In the northern Karen district of Mu Traw alone, 200 villages have been burnt or destroyed since 1997 and farmlands mined, leaving around 37,000 villagers hiding as IDPs in the hills, says a KESAN report, "Diversity Degraded" written by ethnic Karen researchers.

Marty Bergoffen, an American environmental lawyer helping KESAN develop a forest policy, told a gathering of journalists convened by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Bangkok, last month, that there were over 100,000 refugees on the Thai border and "literally millions of economic refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, India and elsewhere."

KESAN is a Chiang-Mai, Thailand-based organization of Karen activists working with indigenous Karen on both sides of the Burma-Thailand border.

Bergoffen says women are especially affected in the conflict, facing physical vulnerabilities and limited access to work because of border security issues.

"Thailand has no long-term refugee policy, so it’s hard for the Karen to plan any future", he says.

Bergoffen terms the Karen’s local biodiversity as the "lynchpin" of community-survival that the war is now threatening.

The military has mined the farmlands of those IDPs hiding in the hills, barring them from returning to cultivate crops.

The Karen had survived for centuries on a seven-year rotational cycle of cultivation that allowed fallow land to regenerate, but now with mined lands and military occupation, villagers make do with shrunken land space that is resulting in overexploitation of both biodiversity and land.

"In the past I didn’t cultivate on very sloped land or in old forest. But now I cannot survive if I don’t cultivate in the old forest. I know that these are not good places to use for cultivation but I have no choice," says a Ta Paw Der a villager in the KESAN report.

Besides the SDPC, the KNU have also been involved in unsustainable exploitation of Karen’s biodiversity, selling off timber for arms as they retreat from increased military offensives.

Increased militarization has already resulted in the loss of the severely endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros, says KESAN.

To add to the problem, indigenous knowledge, a tradition handed orally down the generations, is as threatened as local biodiversity, forests and traditional lifestyles disappear in the fighting.

Ta Paw Der village previously had over 150 kinds of edible forest products, including wild honey, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, gingers, tubers, roots, nuts and fruits, but it is now physically unsafe to collect such produce.

Another biodiversity survey of Karen’s arterial Salween River opposite Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province, undertaken by KESAN, has identified over 40 endangered plant and animal species which are being threatened by ongoing military action.

Over two dozen endemic and unknown species, including eight endemic fish species have also been identified by Dr. Chavalit Vidthayanon of WWF-Thailand.

KESAN’s report shows that the Salween River still contains amazing biodiversity, and deserves more attention from international scientists.

But a deal between Thailand and Burma for the first large-scale hydropower project on the Salween river could displace and negatively impact upon tens of thousands of poor and marginalized people from ethnic minorities in that country.

Five giant hydropower dams, of which the first is the Wei Gyi has been planned on the Salween river by the Burmese, Thai and Chinese governments, adding to the threat from the cumulative impact of cascading dams.

KESAN activist, Ko Shwe says: "The Karen people depend on a healthy Salween ecosystem, including fish, forest products, riverside gardens and transportation. The proposed dams will ruin the ecosystem and the free flowing river, kill the surrounding forests and destroy the lives of thousands of people.

Burma has several ongoing and proposed hydropower, gem-mining and natural gas projects countrywide with various nations, including China, Thailand, Korea and India.

In northern Shan district, a 600 megawatts Chinese hydroelectric project will give Burma just 15 percent of the electricity generated and the rest will be sold to China at an undisclosed price.

According to EarthRights International, there are 69 Chinese trans-nationals involved in 90 completed, current and planned projects in hydropower, oil, natural gas and mining.

Ka Hsaw Wa, executive director of EarthRights International says on its website: "We’ve repeatedly seen foreign companies coming into Burma with disregard for local people and the environment. Given what we know about development projects in Burma and the current situation, we’re concerned about this marked increase in the number of these projects."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group has called for countries to boycott Burmese gems, deals for which are going to support the military, while environmental activists say that indiscriminate mining for jade and rubies is destroying the ecology and ecosystems of northern Burma.

But despite such calls and a US ban on the import of Burmese rubies and jade gem dealers say their lucrative trade has buyers from China, Russia, Thailand, India, EU and the Gulf countries.

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