The Role of Kachin People in the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00

1. Kachin State

Kachin State, the northernmost state of Burma, is bordered by China to the north and east, Shan State to the south, and Sagaing Division and India to the west. The population of Kachin State is about 1.2 million people. The inhabitants are ethnic Kachin (including Jinghpaw, Rawang, Lisu, Zaiwa, Longwo, and Lachit sub-groups), Shan, Naga, Burman, Chinese, and Indian. Kachin State is part of the Indo-Burma hotspot,1 recognized as one of the eight “hottest hotspots for biodiversity” in the world.

Burma gained independence from British colonization in 1948. Following a short period of parliamentary government, Burma has been ruled by a series of military dictatorships since 1962. Disagreements over the rights and powers of the central and local governments led to civil war in some areas of the country. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, Kachin Independence Army (KIA), were founded in 1961 in response to these political differences. After years of armed struggle, the KIO/KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the SPDC in 1994. The Hugawng Valley was mostly controlled by the KIA before the ceasefire agreement but at present the SPDC controls the area with a significant military presence.


2. Hugawng Valley

Hugawng Valley is located in the western part of Kachin State near the Indian border, between the Kumon Mountain range to the east and the Patkai Mountains to the west. The Patkai range includes headwaters for the Chindwin and Brahmaputra Rivers, while the Kumon Mountains contain the headwaters of Danai, Tawang and Tarung Rivers, which together form the headstreams of the Chindwin. The catchments flow into the plains of the Hugawng Valley where they combine to form the largest tributary of the Chindwin – the Danai River. The majority of the local people in the Hugawng Valley are Kachin, with other ethnic minorities represented, such as Naga and Shan. Lisu are also a prevalent minority living in the valley, although in Burma, Lisu are included in the Kachin classification.

The Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve

The remote Hugawng Valley has been internationally recognized as a major global hotspot of biodiversity, mainly due to its vast remaining forests and the wildlife contained therein.

Office of the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve

Office of the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve


In 2001, the Hugawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary was established by the SPDC with support by the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The US-based World Conservation Society was the first international conservation organization to implement projects in Burma, starting in 1993. In 2004 the Minister of Forestry agreed to expand the sanctuary to cover almost the entire Hugawng Valley, an area of almost 21,890 square kilometers, nearly the size of the US state of Vermont, creating the world’s largest tiger conservation area and one of the world’s largest forest protected areas. The Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve adjoins other wildlife conservation parks in northwest Kachin State to form the huge “Northern Forest Complex.” 2

About 50,000 people currently live in the valley,3 but they are given no rights to participate in the decision-making process regarding development and conservation occurring on their own land. WCS provided no space for participation of indigenous peoples who are closely dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and have intricate traditional systems of land management.4 In contrast, as part of their conservation mission, WCS assisted the SPDC in obtaining geographical information about forested regions in Kachin State.5

The authorities, in collaboration with international conservationists such as the WCS, have forbidden hunting and shifting cultivation by local villagers living within the reserve, and have confiscated all guns. This has had serious impacts on local traditional livelihoods and food security, which have also been threatened due to environmentally- and socially-damaging industries such as monoculture plantations, mining, and hunting to feed migrants and more distant markets. This has increasingly led to locals being forced to leave their traditional way of life and find jobs, such as those with the mining industry or in Danai town.


Sign indicating the area of the Tiger Reserve

2. Traditional Natural Resource Management

Kachin people are very dependent on forestland for their traditional livelihoods and cultural practices. These include cultivating agricultural fields including rice paddy on cleared forestland, hunting, collecting timber, non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as medicinal and culinary herbs, and fishing in forest streams. Their knowledge and practices are always directly related to maintaining and respecting the forest. When harvesting the forest, the Kachin people practice a traditional rotational cultivation system that specifically takes into account the preservation of forestland resources. As one rural Kachin villager explained: “When doing cultivation, we never cut from the whole mountain. We conserve the forest where the stream comes through and do not cut big areas of forest, just enough for our family.” 6

Villagers work together to cultivate forested hillsides. They harvest just enough for their families and do not engage in intensive cash cropping agriculture, selling only that which is not needed to feed the family. The forest near the village or town is intentionally conserved to encourage wildlife populations for sustainable low-pressure hunting and to preserve forest resources such as firewood for future needs. The villagers normally do not agree to sell their village forests for timber to businessmen, although village headmen have been known to sign off on logging concessions without village consensus. In this region, if one of the families in the community needs to build a house or a public building such as a church needs to be built, timber is cut from the community-managed forest, and the structures are built and managed by volunteers from the community.

Abundant wildlife of the Danai River

Abundant wildlife of the Danai River

The local hunters are absolutely dependant on the forest – and in particular the water cycle that maintains wildlife populations. As a result, their beliefs and practices focus on the maintenance of these forestlands. Hunters also possess traditional knowledge about maintaining animal populations such as the right time to hunt to ensure a plentiful future supply of wildlife. Hunters never hunt during the reproduction season of a particular species. In the past they only hunted enough to feed their family, but nowadays the local skilled Lisu hunters hunt for business anytime. A hunter from Danai clarifies: “We never hunt the animals which are having babies, because if we hunted at that time, there would be no animals for the future generations. We hunt only enough for our family.” 7

The Tarung and Danai Rivers are abundant with fish, and many local people make a living by fishing in these rivers. The fishermen are aware careful to maintain future supply, however: “Normally we use the ‘blocking river fishing system’, where we block one third of the river and allow the rest to flow freely. When we use nets to catch fish, we keep only the big ones and let the small fish go8.” But recently there have been some people who use Chinese-made dynamite or electric shocks to catch fish.


A wide variety of fish caught in the Danai River

The Kachin traditionally believe that if someone does a bad thing, a wild animal will come and destroy the village. This belief also extends to the environment, and the legend prevents people from hurting each other. In addition, villagers in Tingkok village, close to the tiger reserve, believe that people should not make a lot of noise in the jungle. If they do, it is believed that it will begin to rain hard and may even cause an earthquake. They also never cut down old-growth trees in the forest because they believe this will disturb and anger the forest guardian spirit, resulting in their sickness. The Kachin people never cut any tree or gather leaves (to use for wrapping things) along a river because they believe the spirits who live in that area will get angry, again causing people to get sick. These religious and spiritual beliefs thus help prevent the river from drying or eroding due to removal of vegetation along its banks.


3. Impacts of Militarization

The Hugawng Valley was largely untouched by Burma’s military regime until the mid-1990s. After a ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the junta, local residents had high hopes that peace would foster economic development and improved living conditions. Under the junta’s increased control, however, the valley’s rich resources have turned out to be a curse. Since the ceasefire, the junta has expanded its military infrastructure throughout Kachin State, increasing its presence from 26 battalions in 1994 to 41 in 2006. In the Hugawng Valley, there were three battalions in 1994, and this increased to seven by 2006.9


There are many examples of environmental and social destruction occurring in the Hugawng Valley. This includes disruptions to the tiger reserve from gold mining activity. The SPDC has given concession permits to the Chinese and local businessmen close to the military to undertake gold mining projects in this protected area. The highly destructive alluvial mining practice has led to both environmental destruction and social disruption. Environmental problems include mercury poisoning, river bank destruction, noise pollution, the loss of fishing livelihoods and increased hunting pressures to feed migrant miners, among others. Social problems arising because of the gold mining activities include loss of individual gold panning rights and negative social influences from mining migrants, such as the introduction of prostitution and drug addiction into communities. While the authorities pocket money from mining, no attention is paid to community development initiatives for local villagers.

The recent mining boom has impacted Kachin traditional livelihoods. Villagers now would rather get involved in gold mining as daily laborers, including local girls who become prostitutes. The influx of migrants working in harsh conditions, combined with a lack of education and alternative livelihood opportunities, helps support a drug market and gambling industries, all of which increase the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The local forests are being destroyed by mining activities. This also increases the pressure on migrant populations through over-harvesting of NTFPs and dwindling wildlife. It has become more difficult to practice traditional hunting. Because now there is a thriving market for poached wildlife, customary hunting procedures is getting lost. This in turn leads to animals migrations to less disturbed habitats away from increasing human population pressures. One local Kachin man said, “Sometimes, animals like elephants or deer are found dead inside large mining pits, where they are trapped. Also, the number of animals is decreasing because many people are now hunting without discipline.” 10

Unsustainable Fishing and Hunting

Rivers in Kachin State used to be home to plenty of fish, and fishing was a major livelihood as well as being a fun way to relax. Local fishing livelihoods are also being destroyed by migrants arriving with new, destructive business initiatives. For example, some business people have been granted permits from the local authorities allowing them to harvest an unlimited amount of fish. Consequently these concessionaires are introducing new destructive fishing methods, such as the use of dynamite and electric shock, which quickly and indiscriminately depletes fish stocks. Fishing concessions are overriding the traditional sustainable fishing practice.

Similarly, in the past, people did not travel alone in the Hugawng Valley because of the danger posed by wild elephants and tigers, but recently, cash-oriented hunters, such as migrants and some local hunters, hunt the animals at any time of year and sell animal parts like tusks, horns, skin, hoof and bongs to buyers from China and India. Animals are also hunted for their meat now that they can be sold easily in the local market, because there are thousands of gold miners who create local demand. This has threatened the survival of many species.

Yuzana Company worker camp

Yuzana Company worker camp

Large animals like tiger and elephant are no longer able to survive in the hunting areas of Hugawng Valley, and they have migrated across the border into India. A villager complains that “there is no reason for the elephant and tiger to return to this area because there is no place, no food for them.” 11

Commercial Plantations

Another recent problematic business transaction occurred when the Yuzana Company which is closely connected to the SPDC, received an agricultural concession along the edge of the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve. “In 2007 the company bought over 200,000 acres of land in Hugawng Valley by backing local Burmese Army bases, but the company cultivated sugar cane and cassava crops on about 4,000 acres.” 12 The farmland of indigenous people was confiscated to be clear-cut and used for sugarcane and cassava plantations. The company uses herbicides to clear the land, resulting in the death of many wild and domestic animals from eating the plants sprayed with the toxic chemicals.

Furthermore, the company dug a canal that killed one local person’s buffalo when it fell into the canal. The military authorities are letting the companies destroy the forest for their own interest while they are forbidding the indigenous people from hunting and cutting trees, even for gathering firewood. A villager said “I have no idea why the authorities give permits to cut trees to companies while we are not allowed.” 13


A buffalo trapped to death in the canal dug by Yuzana

A buffalo trapped to death in the canal dug by Yuzana

In June 2007, the Hugawng Valley Farmer Social Committee sent a letter of appeal protesting land confiscation in Hugawng Valley to Senior General Than Shwe, which was signed by 19 representatives and over 800 farmers in villages along the Ledo Road, including Nawng Mi, Warazup, Tingkawk, Kawng Ra, and Danai town. Later the Commander of Regional Operation Command (Da Ka Sa) call the Farmer Social Committee to his office and asked who supported the letter, the purpose of sending such a letter, and warned them not to take such actions. There has been no solution to the problem of land confiscation. In addition, In early 2008, villagers in Warazup Village sent a petition letter asking Yuzana Company not to confiscate their land, but Yuzana did not respond. Similarly, in May 2008, villagers in Jahtu zup asked that Yuzana Company return the 450 acres of land that it had confiscated. Yuzana did not respond, and when he villagers realized that Yuzana was not going to give back their land, they destroyed Yuzana’s cassava plantation. Later, Infantry Battalion 297 came to the village, and the villagers were summoned by the army and township officers for a meeting. There have been 21 meetings, but no solution has been reached.

Land confiscated by Yuzana Company

Land confiscated by Yuzana Company


Monoculture crops planed on confiscated land

Monoculture crops planed on confiscated land

4. KDNG Projects

Members of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) are concerned about the destruction of Hugawng Valley. In 2007, KDNG published Valley of Darkness: Gold Mining and Militarization of Burma’s Hugawng Valley. KDNG is planning to publish a follow-up report on land confiscation in the Hugawng Valley. In addition, KDNG provides awareness training to promote the importance of indigenous knowledge and the vital link to culturally-appropriate environmental management and conservation.

The goals of KDNG are to:

  • Maintain the integrity of land and forests;
  • Empower indigenous people by improving awareness on environmental issues relating to human rights, environmental rights and indigenous rights; and
  • Achieve these goals through trainings, workshops, research, documentation and advocacy.


5. Conclusion

The livelihoods of indigenous peoples in Hugawng Valley are very dependent on forestlands and the resources found therein. The traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices of the indigenous peoples are directly linked to the preservation of the local environment. Their precious local natural resources, however, are under threat due to destructive development and putative conservation under the control of outsiders – namely, the military, profit-making companies, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The local people are given no opportunity to participate in the decision-making process regarding development and conservation occurring on their own land. But the indigenous people have the right to self- determination and ownership of land as well as the right to manage their own natural resources.

The government should not ignore the indigenous people, but rather should promote the use and preservation of indigenous knowledge, beliefs and practices that are associated with conserving the forests and its many resources. The government also should integrate indigenous wisdom as much as possible into their future development plans. There is no way to preserve the forest and wildlife without indigenous people participating in decision making, including a leading role in the process. The government must investigate development policies and activities that are destroying the tiger reserve and local indigenous’ livelihoods.


About Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG)

Founded in 2004, KDNG is a network of civil society groups and development organizations in Kachin State. KDNG’s purpose is to effectively work for sustainable development based on indigenous knowledge and culturally-appropriate environmental management and conservation methods. KDNG works to maintain the integrity of land and forest, and empower indigenous people by providing awareness on environment issues, especially relating to human rights, environmental rights and indigenous rights. It achieves these goals through trainings, workshops, research, documentation, and advocacy.




1 See, e.g., Indo-Burma Hotspot, available online at <>. Last accessed May 11, 2009

2 KDNG, Valley of Darkness: Gold mining and militarization in Burma’s Hugawng Valley, January 2007, p. 7. Available online at <>.

3 J. Pollard, “In the Eye of the Tiger,” Western Australian, 11 Jun. 2005.

4 Noam, Z, “Eco-authoritarian conservation and ethnic confl ict in Burma,” in Policy Matters: Conservation and Human Rights (Vol. 15. 2007).

5 Antony J. Lyman, phD, “A National Tiger Action Plan for the Union of Myanmar,” World Conservation Society, May 2003, at: < le/NTAPcomplete.pdf>. Last accessed 17 Apr. 2009.

6 KDNG Interview #1, March 2007.

7 KDNG Interview #2, March 2007.

8 KDNG Interview #3, June 2007.

9 Valley of Darkness, supra note 2, p.8.

10 KDNG Interview #4, May 2007.

11 KDNG Interview #6, April 2007.

12 Burma News International, “Yuzana Company pollutes river in the world’s largest tiger reserve,” January 16, 2008. Available online at: 3340&Itemid=6. Last accessed 17 Feb. 2009.

13 KDNG Interview #1, March 2007.

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