Environmental Protection, Indigenous Knowledge and Livelihood in Karen State: A Focus on Community Conserved Areas Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00

1. Karen State and Its People

Karen State lies in eastern Burma, stretching along the border with Thailand. Its northern and eastern areas are mountainous and largely remain forested (although much of this is degraded), while the central and southern regions are flatter and have been heavily logged, with little primary forest remaining. The state is rich in natural resources including timber and other forest products and gold. Key threats to the environment are rapid deforestation and associated biodiversity loss through logging, large-scale infrastructure projects such as military installations, roads, and proposed mega-dams on the Salween River, degradation of land and rivers due to with mining, and the impact of agriculture and population pressures.

Karen people have lived in what is now eastern Burma and western Thailand since at least the 13th century. Population estimates for the Karen varies between four and seven million, and approximately 250,000 living inside Karen State (Districts of Doo The Htoo (Thaton in Burmese), Toungoo, Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaung Lebin), Mutraw (Papun), Dooplaya and Pa’an) as well as in Mergui Tavoy District of Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Division. The majority of Karen people are animist and Buddhist, with around one-fifth Christian. The vast majority of the population in Karen State is rural, with many living as traditional subsistence farmers. In the uplands, swidden agriculture is widely practiced, supplemented with food gathered from the forest. In the lowlands, there is more permanent field agriculture and an increasing amount of cash cropping.

The Karen people have been enduring the world’s longest-running civil war for over sixty years. Most of the central and southern regions of the state are now firmly under the control of Burma’s military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), while the highlands of the north are the stronghold of the Karen National Union (KNU). Villages in the region can be subject to SPDC raids and severe human rights abuses. Entire villages have been relocated and grouped together to form towns by the SPDC in the name of development. The SPDC-controlled areas are more secure, but villagers face more restrictions. More than 5,000 people have been ordered to move to these relocation sites in northern Karen State in 2007.1 Movement outside of SPDC-controlled areas is limited, agricultural decisions including which crops to plant are made by the military, and forced labor is common.

The civil war also has caused more than 100,000 Karen people to flee to Thailand, and a further 116,900 currently live as internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the state.2 IDP communities typically need to move two or three times a year. The war has created food shortages in many areas, and modern healthcare is unavailable. As a result, the health situation for IDPs is particularly bad. For example, the mortality rate for children under five in eastern Burma is 22.1%, twice the national average.3 Further, the war has a substantial impact on the environment. Forests are cleared for military purposes and natural resources are extracted and sold by both sides to obtain funds for the war. Additionally, human migration, loss of agricultural land, and food insecurity continue to place heavy pressure on populations that are already vulnerable.

It is in this conflict situation that the community-based environmental initiatives discussed here are being undertaken. All the initiatives are within areas where either the KNU is in control or where both the KNU and the SPDC and its allies have influence. Each district in Karen State has its own local government, headed by a district leader. The KNU also has a civil service structure. It is important for villages to negotiate with local leadership in order for community-conserved areas to be respected by others outside the community, including the KNU.


2. Indigenous Knowledge and Protection of the Environment

Karen lands along both sides of the Thai-Burmese border are rich in biodiversity. Rivers are relatively clean, and until the recent intrusion of outsiders, Karen forests were expansive and healthy. The immediate natural environment has long provided a range of services that met all the needs of the local people such as food, water and shelter, as well as means of transport and communication with other villages by river, natural protection from invasion, medicine, irrigation, and sites for cultural and spiritual rituals. Customary law has ensured the health of ecosystems and protected these services.

For the Karen, the natural environment is not a “wilderness” or something separate from its people, but rather a home, integrated with daily life. The calendar is based on signs from nature – the call of a bird or frog or the arrival of insects. Their relationship with nature is also deeply linked to spirituality, and cultural taboos have contributed to environmental preservation. Practices such as collecting different seed varieties and mixed cropping for natural pest control have ensured the promotion of biodiversity and preservation of ecosystems. Prohibition of certain activities also contributes to environmental protection. For example, there are rules against fishing during spawning and in protected areas. Hunting is banned during the breeding season, and some species are protected, particularly those that reproduce in small numbers such as gibbons, or mate for life such as hornbills. Some tree species are protected or only felled for specific purposes. For example, trees that are reflected by a water source or have nests of ants, bees, or eagles, are never cut. Customary law prohibits the clearing of ecologically-sensitive areas including ridges, steep slopes, old growth forests and watersheds so as not to disturb the spirits of the land.4 Spiritual rituals are largely based on animist traditions and have customarily guided cultivation practices, and many plant and animal species are associated with a particular set of beliefs.

Unlike some other ethnic groups in Burma, the Karen did not have any form of centralized government. They are originally a tribal society with villages loosely connected to each other through trade and kinship. To the extent possible under the current military regime, the political structure in Karen State is still formed around semi-autonomous small villages grouped into townships and then districts for higher-level decision-making.

Under customary law, each village owns a defined area of land surrounding it. This land includes areas for agriculture, grazing, and rituals, and provides for all of the village’s needs. Village land also includes protected areas. Land between village areas that does not fall within the boundaries of any village is essentially “common.” Because the village area is considered large enough to support the needs of the villagers, there was traditionally no need for common land to be used. Most of the community-conserved areas discussed in this case study fall within village boundaries.

Ko Law Kee Village
Ko Law Kee Village, surrounded by community gardens and rich forest

The Karen people have operated community-conserved areas for centuries. For the Karen, it is simply a way of life, not a specifi c conservation category. It should be noted that this case study only describes projects conducted with the support of community-based organizations. Throughout Karen lands, other communities continue to carry-out traditional practices and systems for conservation without being formally recognized as “community-conserved areas.”

With large numbers of IDPs constantly on the move, and decreasing availability of agricultural land due to migration or confi scation by the military, certain practices cannot be maintained. When villages are relocated, whether by war, land confiscation, or creation of a national park, it not only disrupts the lives of individuals and communities, but also the land management systems that have traditionally protected the environment in the first place. Long-protected areas are now being encroached upon and other taboos are being broken, causing environmental as well as cultural impacts.

When practiced traditionally, swidden agriculture involves using land for one year, then leaving it fallow for periods of seven to ten years, allowing the soil time to regenerate before re-planting. It uses complex forest management techniques that make chemical fertilizers unnecessary, and in Karen State has enabled the preservation of numerous seed varieties. Recent research has shown that the traditional rotational farming method is not only environmentally sustainable but that it can help retain high levels of biodiversity.5 But in areas with large IDP populations, the scarcity of available land has led to an enforced change in traditional practices. Farmers are now returning to their fields after just two to four years, resulting in a decline in soil fertility and an increase of pests and weeds.6

For the Karen, the loss of natural resources is associated with a loss of customs, traditional knowledge and practices, and ultimately, in cultural identity. Recent research in Karen State found that while traditional methods successfully managed natural resources and protected biodiversity, “the longstanding civil war is having a great effect on the Karen’s traditional livelihood and is preventing [local Karen communities] from using their environment in a sustainable manner.”7 The projects described in the case study aim to address this issue.


3. Conservation in Practice

Community-conserved areas

In Karen State, villagers are undertaking a range of projects aimed at environmental conservation while maintaining their livelihoods and preserving their culture. Projects include establishment and management of protected areas, limited extraction of forest products for traditional medicines, and use of farming techniques that reduce agricultural inputs and impacts on the environment, all the while improving food security. In the past three years, more than 30 such projects have been implemented with support from local community based organizations and international NGOs.

The aim is that within two years, the projects become self-sustaining and managed solely by the community without assistance from NGOs. Some projects have reached this stage, with KESAN’s community forests and traditional medicine projects being particularly successful. Reliance on community ensures that the environment and local biodiversity can be protected in the absence of funding by government or NGOs and increases the chances of long-term sustainability. Communities have demonstrated an ability to adapt and continue with conservation efforts in highly challenging circumstances and even in the face of a civil war. In such circumstances, approaches that are not locally-based would be abandoned under pressure and doomed to failure.

The best way to slow environmental degradation in Burma may be in promoting and supporting local “people-centered” conservation efforts such as those described below. The involvement of local people at all stages means that the initiatives discussed here also are strategies for long-term preservation of the environment and local livelihoods. KESAN’s experience in facilitating conservation projects in Karen State has been that when communities are not only consulted, but take full part in the development and implementation of conservation activities, they are motivated. Ongoing involvement has increased the awareness of both villagers and leaders of the negative effects of unsustainable practices such as logging, mining, over-fishing, and over-hunting. In addition to the advantages of community participation, direct involvement of communities in conservation would enable government staff to have an advisory role, which would place less pressure on the government’s already limited resources.

The organizations working with indigenous communities on conservation in Burma have found it relatively easy to engage the interest and participation of local people. Villagers are well aware of environmental degradation as it directly affects them through the unavailability of particular herbs or reduction in animal numbers. Because many people are most concerned about issues in the context of their own lives such as health, food, livelihood, and lifestyle, conservation solutions will work best if they address these areas and provide tangible benefits. By linking broader environmental issues to day-to-day difficulties, environmental educators have successfully inspired communities to explore ways of protecting local ecosystems. Creating these linkages has a two-way effect. In the traditional medicine projects, for example, conservation has spin-off health benefits while reviving traditional health practices encourages sustainable forest management.

The key to the ongoing viability of the initiatives described here is their emphasis on maintaining and strengthening existing local livelihoods together with the provision of advantages such as improved health and food security. In addition, the community approach encourages self-reliance as villagers work together to solve problems. Local research has shown that men and women have distinctive ecological knowledge. The contribution of both is important in obtaining an improved understanding of biodiversity and conservation as well as in preserving that knowledge. In this case, “development” is not about building infrastructure or economic growth or even about improving health and welfare indicators, but it is primarily about building capacity within communities to take care of themselves. In the case of IDPs, this is especially challenging and important.

The current program of community conservation began following workshops and environmental education conducted by the KESAN in 2003. Workshops were initially held with local government offi cials to gain their support, and then within communities across northern Karen State. Since then, over 100 community members and local government staff have taken one to three months’ intensive trainings to equip them with the skills to coordinate projects in their districts. Trainees are nominated by village leaders and district government respectively, and selected on the basis of their interest in environmental issues and commitment to working for the community. Subjects range from local and global environmental issues, project management, reporting and committee-organizing, and practical skills such as organic farming, chicken raising, use of herbal medicines for disease control, and community forestry. Training is held annually and provides previous participants with an opportunity to increase their skills and a forum to discuss issues with existing projects. Recruitment of additional trainees allows the program to spread progressively. Each district now has a committee that considers project applications from communities.

The process for designing, establishing, and implementing projects is very much from the bottom-up. The role of KESAN and other organizations is to facilitate and to help communities identify, clarify, and put into practice what they already know. Local expertise is used first, with external expertise brought in only where necessary. Communities identify potential projects and decide policies, rules, and operational guidelines. They work with the trained local project staff or relevant local government officials to manage projects, with communities progressively taking more control as their skills develop. In a number of villages, committees have been formed to manage and sustain their own projects. This approach ensures community buy-in, investment, and commitment from the planning to implementation stages, reducing the instances of projects unworkable or unnecessary for communities, and making projects more viable in the long term.

Community Forests

The first community forests under this program were established in Karen State in 2005, and at time of writing, there were nine operating. The basic tenet is that forest products will be harvested only for the village’s own use and not sold outside for profit. Beyond this, it is at the community’s discretion to determine the level of protection for their forest, and how it can be managed sustainably. Forests vary in size, generally taking up 10 to 15 % of village lands, with the current largest at 64 acres. Sometimes the program simply gives formal structure and recognition to areas that are already being cared for as community forests according to Karen traditions. In one instance, the “new” community forest has been a protected area for three generations. The forest had been troubled by illegal logging, however, so the village approached KESAN to speak to the district leader on their behalf, and gained official recognition of their rights to the forest.

Baw Kee Village community forest

Baw Kee Village community forest

Once a village decides to establish a community forest, villagers develop a management plan. The community forest is generally part of a larger forest area, and the plan outlines land use for the entire forest within the village boundaries. The management plan also specifies how resources within the community forest will be used. For example, rates of re-growth are calculated to determine how often a tree or bamboo plant can be cut down for building. Some communities plant hardwood trees and other tree species. All villagers have the responsibility to care for the forest, but they choose a committee to manage it. One or two committee members are appointed as rangers to check the forest each day and monitor use.

One committee member in Doo The Htoo District explains the objective of his village’s community forest: “The purpose of conserving the forest is to grow it for our children to use for building their houses in the future. Our children will see the big and tall trees. If we did not protect any forest area, there would be no more big trees in our area, as they are cut down almost continuously.” The aim is for ecosystems to regenerate sufficiently so that a village can meet its long-term needs. In this way, a community forest ensures that a village can sustain itself, thereby reducing pressure on surrounding areas.

Community forests may also be established with the aim of protecting wildlife. One Mutraw District villager whose community forest contains a stream says: “We conserve this forest area to bring back natural levels of animal populations. People have hunted and fished in untraditional ways such as by using machine guns, chemical and herbal poisons, spear guns, illegal fishing nets, and bombing, so the animals decreased very quickly and could become extinct.”

Revival of Customary Practices in Demarcating Village Boundaries

Those outside of the community may not settle, farm, or collect non-timber forest products in the community forest. When supporting a community forestry project, KESAN promotes the adoption of customary practices in establishing village boundaries including community forests. In many areas, customary practices have fallen into disuse as a result of armed conflict and extensive displacement, but KESAN has found that such practices are effective in helping villagers respect boundaries and avoid disputes over territory and forest resources.

Traditionally, demarcation of a village boundary is done jointly with villagers from neighboring villages and is a spiritual as well as physical undertaking. At the end of the demarcation walk, everyone gathers on the mountain ridge which usually serves as the village borderline. Stones are piled to mark the border, and everyone makes an oath not to violate each other’s territories and rules. After this ceremony, they cook and eat together. Villagers believe that violations of territories and rules will cause illnesses, accidents, or poor rice harvests.

After the village boundaries are established through the customary procedures, KESAN assists in obtaining official recognition from the local administration. When a community forest is declared, the local government issues a document formally recognizing that the forest is within village land, and this is circulated to surrounding villages. In one case, a village established a community forest, and it was recognized by the local government. After a few years, the community forest, once severely degraded, began to regenerate. This made it easier for villagers to collect bamboo and wood for construction, vegetables and fruits, and hunt game such as wild chickens and squirrels for household consumption. Seeing the progress of the community forest, a nearby village realized the benefit of demarcating the community forest boundaries and obtaining official recognition by the local government, and wanted to establish a community forest. The local government supported this move, and the second village began its own community forest program with assistance from KESAN.

In the case of an offence, the village elders meet and discuss how to respond to the offence. The village elders’ council is regarded as the highest decision-making body in a community, and an offender must accept the ruling of the council. The decisions of the council are based on rules and regulations that the villagers themselves developed and passed or on traditional practices. The severity of punishment depends on the degree of wrongdoing. As a general matter, the offender receives one or more warnings and must pay a fine. If the offender repeats the same mistakes, he or she may be expelled from the community. In severe cases, village elders’ councils from two villages are called to solve the problem. When a dispute cannot be solved by the villages, the case is sent to the local court.

In one case reported to KESAN, a man was found removing cut logs from the community forest in another village. A meeting was held with the forest committee, headmen from both villages, representatives of KESAN and the local government. Both the offender and his headman acknowledged the rights of the project village to the forest, and it was agreed that as it was his first offence, the man would return the wood but not be punished.

Traditional Medicine

Decades of civil war have created a public health crisis in Karen State. Common problems include malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, skin infections, and parasites. The Karen people have traditionally sourced medicine from our natural surroundings. By keeping the forest healthy and maintaining its biodiversity, they ensure the availability of an herbal medicine chest. The Karen possess knowledge of a range of medicinal plants that still grow wild, such as the Cinchona tree that contains quinine and can be used to treat malaria when western medicine is unavailable. In particular, in the context of civil war where clinics and western medicine is difficult to access in many areas, herbal medicine from forests has the potential to play an important role in health.

Community forest protected for herbal medicine collection

Community forest protected for herbal medicine collection

Traditional medicine initiatives introduced in 2006 aim to improve healthcare and increase awareness of the importance of preserving forests. Five herbal forests are now operating in three districts. An area of forest is reserved for collecting of medicinal plants by local people. Sometimes when a species is in decline or not present in the area, seeds are collected and cultivated in the forest. Two forests of five to ten acres have been established as individual village projects. The other three are larger (for example, the forest in Dooplaya district is 200 acres) and were set up on common land in conjunction with the Karen Health and Welfare Department. These may be used by all adjoining communities to gather herbs for their own use. Traditional medicine gardens are also being established in areas where forests are at risk of overuse and where communities no longer have access to forests. In the future, the project may support IDP communities to plant important herbs in pots that could be carried with them when they are forced to move.

In each village, several young people have been trained by the local herbalist to make and use medicines. The second stage of the project is to set up a clinic close to each herbal forest (at the time of writing, five have been established), along with a training center for herbal medicine practitioners. After three years of forest regeneration, there may be an opportunity for sustainable harvesting of herbs for sale to neighboring villages with profits used to fund new clinics. In late 2007 an herbal medicine book was produced and distributed to communities throughout Karen State and in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. The book describes the preparation and use of herbal medicines for treating 15 health problems and provides 50 kinds of basic first aid home remedies adapted to suit the IDP situation, such as using a locally available plant to treat a cut.

Villagers collecting herbal medicines

Villagers collecting herbal medicines

Sustainable harvesting is what ensures the long-term viability of the herbal forest scheme. By protecting the forest, communities maintain traditional medical knowledge and practices and become more self-reliant for basic healthcare.

Food Security Projects

The combination of a large number of IDPs and the disruption of subsistence agriculture through forced abandonment of crops, confiscation of agricultural produce, and forced labor have seriously compromised food availability in Karen State. Around half of IDP children are estimated to be chronically malnourished and nearly ten % suffering from acute malnutrition.8

In order to promote sustainable agriculture using indigenous knowledge systems in combination with other technologies, over twenty food security projects have been started by communities in five districts since 2004. These include organic agriculture trainings, construction of an irrigation canal, creation of organic gardens and animal husbandry schemes, and research on local food security issues and solutions. Projects aim to improve food security, conserve biodiversity, reduce negative environmental impacts, and ensure that sustainable indigenous farming systems and knowledge are passed on. They also strengthen local livelihoods and encourage community self-reliance.

Karen people have traditionally relied on gathering many plants from the forest. With added population pressures, this practiced has become unsustainable and constitutes an additional threat to biodiversity. As part of the food security program, villagers are encouraged to plant forest food species with their crops or in small home vegetable gardens. Planting foods that are not easily available elsewhere may also prove to have added benefits in terms of increased nutrition and potential income generation through trade with other communities.

Food security can be threatened not only by disruption to agriculture but also by a reduction in the number of edible species. Forest degradation has led to the loss of many traditional wild seed varieties, while time and land constraints have meant farmers are inclined to practice less-sophisticated cropping and cultivate fewer varieties. The war also has had an impact on native seed availability as IDPs are forced to abandon seeds. Anecdotal evidence suggests local varieties of both cultivated and wild plants have decreased in living memory.9 An important component of the program therefore is seed-saving. Trainings on nutrition and seed-saving are helping to increase community awareness of the need for plant species diversity. The establishment of a central seed bank in 2008 helps preserve biodiversity of both wild and cultivated species.

To support the food security program, young Karen refugees have undertaken agriculture training with an international NGO on the Thai-Burmese border, enabling them in turn to train IDPs in Karen State. A manual of traditional farming techniques is currently in production and there are plans to establish an agriculture school for organic farming training in Karen State in 2009-2010.

The food security program seeks to revive knowledge and techniques that still exist among the Karen people but have been largely forgotten because of the struggles of living in a warzone. When ethnic nationalities talk about preservation of culture, this is not to say that it is something stagnant – culture is always evolving and influenced by internal and external pressures. As such, these projects incorporate other organic techniques and technologies that are complementary and appropriate for traditional methods. The capacity to combine old and new allows for the preservation of cultural identity and maintenance of largely traditional livelihoods, while enabling farmers to be more flexible and adaptable to change. It may also help less sustainable practices to be substituted without substantial impacts.

Environmental policy

For conservation activities to be effective, they need to be backed up by strong and appropriate policies. It is important to consider the Karen community conservation program in the context of a broader framework. A crucial component of the program has involved lobbying the Karen government to acknowledge and address environmental issues and to develop policies that support community natural resource management. This effort has been complicated by the war which has been funded by the extraction of natural resources.

The KNU has shown a certain level of interest in conservation. The Karen government concern for protecting the environment is reflected in the form of a 1982 policy when 11 wildlife sanctuaries were established within KNU territory. Among them was the 460 square kilometer Kaserdoh Wildlife Sanctuary established to protect the habitat of vulnerable species such as the rhinoceros, tiger, and clouded leopard.10 Environmental education, village meetings, and patrols of the sanctuary were implemented “with the full and willing participation of the local population … in stark contrast to the dire situation prevailing in most of the officially protected areas.”11 On the contrary, forest reserves established by the British colonial government were initially protected under KNU law, but many of these reserves have since been logged by both the KNU and illegal loggers, resulting in severely degraded forests. There has been a fatalistic view that “if the SPDC gets control of the forest they will log, so we may as well do it first.”

In recent years, however, environmental lobbying has resulted in a noticeable “greening” of the KNU. One manifestation of this was the establishment of three community herbal forests in Pa’an District in former reserves that had been illegally logged. In demarcating them as herbal forests, it was hoped that local communities would be able to conserve the forests more successfully, allowing them to regenerate. Two are now under the control of a KNU splinter group, the KNU Peace Council, which is aligned with the SPDC.

Karen villagers measure a tree in their community forest

Karen villagers measure a tree in their community forest

In 2005, an environmental committee was formed with members drawn from both the KNU and community-based organizations. The primary task of the Kawthoolei Environment Committee to date has been the development of an overarching environment policy. A draft was prepared following extensive community consultation and will soon go to the KNU for approval. The draft policy recognizes the need for community consultation prior to undertaking any development project. Other committee activities include undertaking an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for gold mining projects in Kler Lwee Htoo District and the publication of a book on environmental issues in the Karen language.

Development of an environmental policy is also taking place at the departmental level. A community forestry policy is being drafted to give the forests legal status under the Karen Forestry Department. The policy will give clear rules on forest product use. This will allow, for example, communities to decide to cut down a tree without first having to seek permission from the department, which is the current policy. It is hoped such autonomy and reduction in bureaucracy will provide an incentive for villages to designate formal community forests.

The Karen Agriculture Department is producing a land policy and has implemented a number of programs to support sustainable agriculture. Having recognized that swidden agriculture is not sustainable under the current civil war conditions, the department now plans to train farmers in alternative methods that can adapt to population growth, economic development, or a demographic shift such as urbanization in the future. In addition, the Karen Education Department recently introduced environmental studies into their school curriculum. The new program now is used in levels 8-10 in all Karen schools in seven refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. Due to logistical constraints it has proven more difficult to implement the program throughout Karen State, but the environmental studies curriculum for levels 3-10 has reached some IDP camps inside Karen State. Lessons focus on livelihood issues such as food, shelter, clothes, and medicine. Training of teachers is ongoing, and curriculum is revised annually in consultation with advisors.

Challenges to Conservation in a Conflict Zone

The biggest challenge to implementing conservation activities in Karen State at present is insecurity created by war. Following a large-scale offensive by the Burmese army in 2005, the community conservation program in Toungoo District was stopped and has not resumed, and two projects in Kler Lwee Htoo District had to be moved. Intensified conflict in Mutraw District in mid-2007 also led to the cancellation of a planned herbal forest after a workshop had already been held with local communities. The distance between villages in Karen State and the fact that transportation is generally by foot add to the operational challenges. In addition, there are personal safety considerations for project coordinators, trainers, and advisers travelling within districts where both the SPDC and KNU have areas under their control.

Internal divisions within the KNU exacerbate the situation. When the Pa-an District leadership split from the KNU in 2007 and aligned itself with the SPDC, two newly-established herbal forests came under the control of groups allied with the regime. For safety reasons, support for these forests could no longer be provided, although it is believed that the local communities are still using and conserving the forests. Because Karen factions would not want to see food, health and education conditions deteriorate for the Karen people, it is hoped this will be able to continue.

Finally, the war makes community engagement a much greater challenge. Gaining rural community agreement to the need for environmental preservation is not difficult – awareness-raising workshops have found a ready audience among people whose lives are so closely and directly linked with their habitat. In conflict areas, however, villagers tend to feel that nothing can be done for the environment while the war is going on.12 For those on the run in particular, survival is a greater priority than resource management or care of the environment. The future of those initiatives that are in fighting zones is unknown.


4. Conclusion

Conservation efforts in Burma face difficult challenges posed by the political situation and the ongoing conflict. Despite these challenges, local communities are drawing on their traditional relationship with their natural environment and reviving forgotten practices to put in place strategies to protect it.

The initiatives discussed here have achieved the following outcomes:

  • Through the use of customary practices, ecologically-sensitive areas are protected and biodiversity promoted. Villagers are more aware of the destructive impacts of unsustainable practices.
  • Local customs and traditional methods for forest management, agriculture, and traditional medicine are revitalized.
  • Local livelihoods are protected.
  • Access to basic healthcare and food security are improved.
  • Communities are strengthened and empowered, as villagers work together to increase their self-reliance.

Ethnic groups such as the Karen with a village-based power structure may be ideally suited to community conservation as projects can utilize existing customs and systems. It is clear from the activities described here that Karen communities are both aware of environmental issues and keen to take part in conservation. Over several years, local people and community-based organizations have developed strategies to deal with security issues and other logistical difficulties inherent in conflict zones. They have been able to devise and implement effective community-based programs that not only protect the environment but help revive traditional cultural practices and help strengthen local livelihoods, food security, and healthcare.

Lo Kee and Saw Ro Ko villagers collect food in their community forest

Lo Kee and Saw Ro Ko villagers collect food in their community forest


5. Recommendations

In developing conservation strategies, villagers, Karen government officials, and staff of community-based organizations have developed skills that enabled them to plan, implement, and maintain these strategies. Despite working in a highly insecure environment, they learned through experience to design activities that are specific to local conditions. In addition, relationships have been built between all three stakeholder groups. That said, there are many opportunities for other organizations to contribute and to build on what has already been achieved. A number of priorities have been identified for conservation of Karen lands, and in each of these areas cooperation would enable Improved outcomes:


  • Conduct further research using both traditional and western scientific approaches to establish baseline biodiversity and ecological data.
  • Develop research skills within local communities, including using locals to conduct the research based on their perception of biodiversity and what they consider to be valuable resources.

Development of community conserved areas:

  • Establish community conserved areas between village lands where appropriate. By linking these with community forests, large corridors supporting high levels of biodiversity could be created throughout Karen lands. These areas would be particularly suitable for co-management.13

Support for local community-based organizations and NGOs:

  • Build the skills of more Karen people to facilitate community conservation, so that the current program can be expanded; e.g., “training of trainer” programs in environmental management. The success of the projects described here has meant local groups are unable to meet the demand for community-based conservation activities.

Support for communities:

  • Assist communities by providing technical or scientific advice for projects.

Policy development and capacity-building in government:

  • Research and write environmental policy and legislation. It is a priority to have policies in place in preparation for transition to democracy.
  • Build capacity within the agriculture and forestry departments to enable a strategic approach to natural resource management across Karen State.

Environment awareness-raising:

  • Develop a range of Karen-language resources for awareness-raising.
  • Further develop the skills of environmental educators.

Education and training:

  • Conduct training for communities in forest resource management.
  • Establish agriculture schools and model farms to demonstrate sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Provide opportunities for young Karen to study science, environmental management, and related programs at the post-high school level.


About Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN)

KESAN was established in 2001 as the first local community-based organization to raise environmental awareness among Karen people. KESAN works to empower and educate communities and local institutions to revitalize existing indigenous knowledge and practices for increased livelihood security in Karen and Kachin States and in areas along the Thai-Burmese border. KESAN strives to build up local capacities in forest and natural resource management, raise public environmental awareness, and support community-based development initiatives. In addition to playing a leading role in environmental law and policy formulation, KESAN advocates for environmental policies and development priorities that ensure sustainable ecological, social, cultural, and economic benefits and promote gender equity.

Website: http://www.kesan.asia



1 Thai Burma Border Consortium, Internal Displacement in Eastern Burma: 2007 Survey, at < http://www. tbbc.org/idps/report-2007-idp-english.pdf>. Last accessed 16 Feb. 2009.

2 Ibid.

3 Back Pack Health Worker Team, Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma, 2006, p. 32, at: <http://www.geocities.com/maesothtml/bphwt/chronic_eng.zip>. Last accessed 16 Dec. 2008.

4 Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, Diversity Degraded: Vulnerability of Cultural and Natural Diversity in Northern Karen State, Burma, Dec. 2005, p. 25. [Hereinafter “Diversity Degraded”].

5 Andrew W. Tordoff, et al., Myanmar: Investment Opportunities in Biodiversity Conservation, Birdlife International., 2005, at p.69.

6 Diversity Degraded, p.28.

7 Diversity Degraded, p.59.

8 TBBC, supra note 1.

9 Diversity Degraded.

10 The Myinmoletkat Nature Reserve, later created by the SPDC, overlapped with the Kaserdoh Sanctuary.

11 Jake Brunner, Kirk Talbot, et al., “Logging Burma’s Frontier Forests: Resources and the Regime,” World Resources Institute, Aug. 1998.

12 Diversity Degraded.

13 Co-management is the sharing of power and responsibility for resource management between the government and local resource users. There is a wide variety of methods to implement co-management based on the distribution of decision making power among stakeholders.

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