Threats to Food Security and Local Coping Strategies in Northern Karen State Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00

1. Background

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “food security” refers to food being available at all times, that all people can access it, that food is nutritionally adequate in terms of quantity, quality, and variety, and that food is culturally acceptable. Only when all of these conditions of availability, accessibility, adequacy, and acceptability are met, can a population be truly “food secure.”1

According to the UN, on average, a Burmese family spends 70 percent of its meager income on food alone.2 Growing poverty and rising inflation have made it increasingly difficult for those in urban areas to meet their basic daily needs. The situation is even direr for rural indigenous communities who subsist off the land, especially those in Burma’s armed conflict areas including Karen State. Their ability to feed themselves is seriously jeopardized by militarization and development projects, as both put heavy pressures on the environment and make it extremely challenging for indigenous peoples to carry on with their traditional livelihoods.

As part of the “Four Cuts” counterinsurgency strategy adopted since in the 1960s, the Burmese military destroys civilian food stores to cut off food supplies for armed insurgent groups such as the Karen National Union (KNU).3 By targeting food, the military government aims to “drain the sea, in order to kill the fish.”4 Another part of the “Four Cuts” policy is to deny rebel groups new recruits. To break-up both actual and suspected rebel support bases, the SPDC forcibly relocates communities and destroys villages.5 In armed conflict areas in eastern Burma, more than 15 percent of children at any given time suffer from mild to more serious conditions of malnutrition.6 In Mu Traw District, northern Karen State where research for this case study was conducted, the rate is more than 25 percent.7

Another pressing danger to local food security is extortion and confiscation of food stores and supplies by the SPDC and destruction of crops and land. As part of the military regime’s “self-reliance” program, battalions are responsible for feeding themselves. To meet their needs, Burma Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) camps regularly rob villagers of their food and force locals grow crops for them, leaving them with food insecurity and vulnerable to starvation and malnutrition.

A common misperception about the conflict and displacement in Karen State is that civilians are “unintended victims and displacement a side-effect of the armed conflict” between the SPDC/DKBA and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU. According to villagers’ accounts, however, the Burma Army largely centers its military operations against Karen civilians, and in many instances actively avoids confrontations with the KNLA.8

As a result, traditional farming methods are disrupted and many villagers flee and become internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Burmese military regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) has declared much of Mu Traw District as “black zones,” or areas under control of rebels, in this case the KNU. In these free-fire zones, SPDC troops are allowed to shoot on sight any Karen man, woman, or child that they find.9 Because of this, farmers cannot safely cultivate their fields, manage their crops, or access rice stores when they are hiding in the jungle, and so must encroach onto lands unsuitable for farming, which precipitates environmental degradation.10 In addition to food insecurity and coping with less arable land, IDPs face constant dangers from SPDC and DKBA patrols, lack of shelter and water, tropical diseases, and landmines.

In early 2009 it was estimated that near Lu Thaw’s immediate vicinity, approximately one third of local Karen did not have enough food to eat.11 The problems seen in Ta Paw Der and surrounding areas are representative of those that have been faced by other communities throughout Karen State for decades.


2. The Karen

The Karen (pronounced “Ka-REN,” with the emphasis on the second syllable) are one of the largest indigenous groups in mainland Southeast Asia. They are descendants from Mongolian people, with two major subgroups, the Sgaw and the Pwo. There are more than ten smaller sub-groups in northern Karen State today. Looking for better land, the Karen migrated from the Gobi Desert, arriving in Burma around 739 B.C. They settled in their traditional homeland in the mountainous eastern border region of Burma, mostly in what is now Karen State, with some in Karenni State, southern Shan State, and in the Irrawaddy and Tenasserim Divisions, as well as in western Thailand. Karen called their new home in present-day Karen State Kaw-Lah, which means “green land.” They later changed it to Kawthoolei, or “land without evil,” because they believed their new lands to be pleasant, peaceful, and plentiful.12

Today, there are between fi ve and seven million Karen in Burma, with another 400,000 in Thailand.13 Population figures for the Karen in Karen State vary, with estimates ranging from about 1.5 million to over 3 million.14 Up to 90 percent of all Karen live in rural areas. Of the rural Karen, 60 percent live in hilly mountainous regions, with the remainder living in lowland plains.15 The majority of Karen are Buddhists, with 25-30 percent Christians and 5-10 percent Animist.16

Traditionally, Karen villages are small, with only a few stilted houses that are made entirely from bamboo and thatch. Animists use only bamboo to construct their homes, as this is tied to spiritual ceremonies. Pig and chickens are kept beneath the houses. Villages are usually located near a stream or river where community members can bathe and where women do washing and gather water for cooking. Fish and shellfish can also be found in these water bodies. Rice fields are nearby, beyond that is the forest, where villagers collect wild fruits, vegetables, roots, leaves, flowers, and other edible foods; medicinal plants can be found as well. Bamboo, rattan, and other non-timber forest resources are used as building materials, cooking containers, and rope. Parts of forests are also customarily demarcated as places for animal sanctuaries.17

Life in the Karen village follows a seasonal pattern that is seen in other parts of mainland Southeast Asia, centered on planting and growing rice. In Karen State, the rainy season lasts from May to October, followed by a cool season form November to January and a dry/hot season from February to April.18 Villagers plant rice at the beginning of the rainy season. During the rainy season, they look after and weed the fields. With the end of the rains comes harvest time. In the hot season, as people wait for the coming rains, new fields are cleared and burned to produce a nutrient-rich soil for new crops.

The Karen people have indigenous methods of managing their lands and forests and have traditionally depended on the forest for herbal medicines, food, building materials, and firewood. Many religious practices and ceremonies also are related to the forest.19 Young Karen gain understanding of traditional knowledge through observation, experience, and practice. There is no formal education, though advice is given when needed. The Karen pass on their knowledge through storytelling, proverbs, and poems.

Before civil war began, the Karen lived peacefully, practicing rotational farming and wet-rice agriculture while protecting the environment and maintaining regional biodiversity. Civil war and development projects, however, have caused the demise and loss of plant varieties and resources, putting local food security and livelihoods under serious threat. Indigenous and local knowledge about natural resource management is disappearing, and the interconnections between their culture and nature are being broken.20


3. Community Profile: Ta Paw Der Village, Mu Traw District

Ta Paw Der is located in Yeh Mu Plaw Village Tract, Lu Thaw Township, in Mu Traw District (called Papun District by the military regime), a mountainous area in northern Karen State. Ta Paw Der is believed to be about 300 years old, and relics indicate that an ancient Ger Wa (tribal group) village used to exist in the same area. Ta Paw Der has a total land area of approximately 16.5 square kilometers. In July 2004, the village had 211 members from 31 families, most of which are Animist.

Local Karen people practice wetland rice cultivation and traditional rotational farming. Main food crops include more than 40 varieties of rice, sesame, sugarcane, chilies, and coconut. KESAN researchers have identified 120 different kinds of edible plants used in rotational farming in Lu Thaw Township. In the past, 180 species were used. This decrease is a clear indicator of the war’s adverse impacts on local food security.21

Map of Ta Paw Der Village and Surrounding Areas (KESAN)

Figure 1: Map of Ta Paw Der Village and Surrounding Areas (KESAN)

Northern Karen State is heavily militarized, and residents there are under particular duress from violence and human rights abuses.22 According to the Karen Office of Relief and Development, there were more than 20,000 IDPs in Lu Thaw Township in 2007.23 As of July 2009, the Karen Department of Health and Welfare Department revealed that there were more than 7,000 people facing serious food shortages in six tracts in Northern Lu Thaw Township.24 Causes are increased militarization, crop destruction by the Burmese military, displacement resulting in overpopulation in upland farming areas, unseasonal weather patterns and pest infestations.

Due to intensified counterinsurgency offenses by the SPDC beginning in the mid 1970s, many villagers have fled from Ta Paw Der. Some went to the Thai border, others went to the cities of Papun and Toungoo, and some fled to the Salween River area. Others moved away after marrying. The civil war has kept villagers constantly on the move in an effort to escape the control of the SPDC. In 1997, the remaining villagers were forced to move again, mostly to different areas around the original village site. Concerns about safety and survival have meant that villagers must constantly be on guard and cannot firmly settle. One community member said Ta Paw Der would have a higher population if it were secure.


4. Traditional Knowledge, Customs, and Approaches to Food Security

Karen livelihood principles respect and acknowledge the need to take care of the entire environmental system. For example, if they are going to use fish, they must also take care of the water. Their knowledge integrates practices of sustainable forest and land use and biodiversity management to build up and maintain food security.

Dependency on Forests for Food

Ta Paw Der community members depend on the forests for more than 150 different kinds of edible forest products. Wild food collected include bananas, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, honey, ginger, varieties of fern, and many tubers and root species. Leaves are the most widely consumed forest food used in soups, curries, and other dishes that accompany rice. Leaves and wild meats increase the nutritional quality of the food by providing protein, vitamins, and minerals. Nuts and seeds provide oil and protein, while tubers and roots are excellent sources of carbohydrates and minerals. These food items add diversity to the diet and help villagers compensate for seasonal crop shortfalls as well as provide food for animals. Forests also supply farmers with food during periods between the main harvest and the next planting season.

In addition, certain trees, plants, and herbs traditionally are used to treat malaria, cough, fever, and many other illnesses. Forests trees such as Nya Bo Jaw, Noe, and Naw treat malaria. Diarrhea is cured by the Tha Ko Kwee fruit, cuts are healed using Chaw Po Gway, and toothaches are stopped by Ghray Tee bark

Traditional Karen Agriculture and the Rotational System

Under the traditional agriculture system, Karen villagers establish permanent villages in one area by growing flatland rice and rotating between upland fields. They are able to settle in one area and do not need to search for new land. The rotation system alternates between a short cultivation and a long fallow period. When properly practiced, rotational cultivation uses the land for one year and then leaves it fallow for seven to ten years before it is used again. This allows the soil to recover and maintain its fertility, making chemical fertilizers unnecessary. This form of cultivation involves long, complex, and deliberate systems using extensive forest management techniques. The Karen also preserve many seed strains, giving them a rich variety of cultivated plants.

Planting begins in April/May and ends with the main harvest in October or November. The area cleared for planting depends on the size of the family, amount of seed available, and soil quality. If the quality of land is good, fewer seeds are needed because each seed will have a higher yield and so can be spaced farther apart in the field. The Karen use a mixed cropping system to maintain diversity and high yields. Bulbs and vines such as taro and beans are planted together with rice. While planting the upland rice, seeds of herbs and flowers are attached to the rice-planting spade and are simultaneously distributed throughout the field. A small section of the land is used for planting vegetables such as chilies, eggplant, and tomato.

Karen hillside rotational agriculture

Karen hillside rotational agriculture

After the main harvest, the land (Thi) is used as a seed bank for Karen farmers. Perennials planted during the cultivation period continue to be harvested for several years. Chilies, eggplant, yam, taro, cassava, herbs, and other crops are left to grow on the fallow land for one to two years before the land is left to completely regenerate. Banana, papaya, and pineapple can be reaped form the Thi for three or four years afterwards. These gardens allow the land to quickly return to its natural biologically diverse state. During the fallow period, farmers will control the vines and thorn bushes to make future cultivation easier.

Millet and cassava are planted along the edges of the land as a buffer between the forest and the rice crop or to separate different fields. Buffer crops protect the main crops from wild animals and birds, as they eat these outlying plants first.

Traditional Collection, Storing, and Planting of Seeds

The mother advised us to save the seed of the taro,

The father advised us to save the seed of the yam.

If we save up to thirty kinds of seeds,

Our lives will be sustained in times of crisis

- Traditional Karen poem told by elders to youth

For many generations, the Karen people have been able to maintain a great number of seed stocks. Genetic diversity allows for food security and thus must be carefully managed. Traditional practices and beliefs provide the people with the tools and the knowledge to appropriately handle and conserve seed strains and maintain local food security. Seeds to be used in the following season are careful selected. The majority are collected from October to December. When farmers decide which plants they will collect the seeds from, the plants are marked so others will not harvest it. Specimens of pumpkins, cucumber, beans, and other runner plants chosen to be saved are marked by strings tied to them. Wrapping corn within its leaves protects the kernels from predators and is also a way of indicating which ears are to be saved.

The Karen store seeds using several different methods. The seeds are never preserved with chemicals. Some are kept in cool, dry places; packed in old cloth; or kept in bamboo containers or baskets. It is very important to protect the seeds from moisture. Seeds are stored in the house, in rice banks, or in field shelters.25

A seed saving workshop

A seed saving workshop

Hor Pwee (a basil variety), a strong smelling herb, is dried and stored with rice, seeds, or pine chips to prevent insect infections. Pumpkin and cucumber seeds are dried then wrapped in cloth. For edible plants from the taro and yam families, the tops of the bulbs are cut, rubbed with ash, and then stored in dark, dry places. Plants that are grown from root cuttings, such as cassava, yam, and stems of seeding herbs, are hung from ceilings in cool, dry storerooms. Cuttings from cassava and bamboo are also tied together and kept standing in streams until it is time from them to be planted.

Herb seeds tend to be very small, so entire branches are collected and dried. Drying entire fruits in the sun or on a skewer hung over the fire protects the fragile seeds in their own casing. This process is also used with chilies, eggplants, beans, and squashes. Seeds dried over the fire are of higher quality than those dried in the sun, because the heat from the fire is more consistent, and the smoke and soot covers and protects the seeds from insects and bacteria. Seeds are extracted just before planting. The process of drying seeds needs to be done very carefully so that they last for the following season and produce high yields. Estimating the best time for planting requires specific knowledge. After burning a plot, the farmers use the smell, texture, and color of the ash and the soil to determine the optimal time for planting. A very dark or red soil cannot be planted on. If the soil is white and yellow, then it is nearly too late for planting.

Removing detritus from seeds prior to storage

Removing detritus from seeds prior to storage

Rice Properties and Techniques

The staple food crop for the Karen is rice. There are many different varieties of this essential crop grown in Karen State. In the Ta Paw Der area, 18 strains of upland rice and 11 kinds of sticky rice are grown. Rice varieties can be distinguished by the appearance of the plant, grain texture (soft or hard), time of harvest, taste, and color. Grain colors vary from red or black (sticky rice), to white, brown, or yellow. Each variety of rice requires different growing conditions to produce high yields. Some varieties prefer high altitudes, and some prefer more humidity than others. The rice strains that grow better in higher elevations have harder grains and are usually brown or red in color. The flatland rice is softer and white.

Sticky rice is planted by every family, mainly to make whiskey for use in special ceremonies, but also consumed as an extra source of food. After the rice is planted in August, and in December after the harvest, the farmers will keep a handful of rice seeds to make a ceremonial whiskey (Bu Hse Klee or Bu Koh Joe), which is shared with community members.

The Karen are very careful not to mix rice varieties. Sticky rice is planted higher in the plot than the regular rice to prevent the two from mixing. If villagers notice seeds or plants in fields that are different than the intended crop or crops to be harvested, they will remove them from the soil immediately to prevent them from further mixing with other plants. In order to keep the rice varieties pure, the best plants are picked, and the seeds are saved for planting in the following season. These seeds are kept separate when crops are reaped and are then sowed separately in fields until enough high quality rice seeds are produced.

Seed Exchange

In the past, every community and villager would borrow, trade, or sell extra seeds to other farmers from their own community or to other villages. This system helped to prevent the loss of local seed varieties. Over time, the focus of many farmers has changed, as prices have increased, and money has become more important. Although seeds are still exchanged within communities and with and with other villages, such practice has largely diminished, resulting in many rice strains being lost.


5. Threats to Food Security and the Local Environment

Increased Militarization, Logging, and Hydropower Development

For over 60 years, successive Burmese governments and the Karen National Union have been embroiled in a war that has endangered local livelihoods. The SPDC directly targets Karen civilians that they believe are supporting the KNU, and hundreds of thousands of Karen have been caught in the violence and suffering from egregious human rights abuses committed by Burma Army troops. These include extrajudicial killings, torture, confiscation and destruction of land and property, forced relocation, and sexual violence. Forced labor and forced portering for the SPDC and DKBA severely interfere with the Karen villagers’ own growing and collecting food.26 In 2007, there were approximately 116,900 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Karen State.27

The natural environment has been destroyed not only because of the conflict, but also because of increasing exploitation of natural resources, both legal and illegal. Karen State has been heavily deforested by legal and illegal logging. Both the KNU and the SPDC sell logging concessions to generate income. After the KNU headquarters were overrun in early 1995, massive logging took place both in Northern Karen State and in the Salween River basin. The SPDC continues to grant Thai and Burmese companies the right to log in KNU-controlled territories. In addition, the military government has proposed to build five mega-dams on the Salween River and export the energy to Thailand. Three of the dams—Wei Gyi, Dagwin, and Hat Gyi—are located in Karen State. The proposed Salween hydropower dams threaten to further devastate the environment and local food security for the Karen by flooding fields and decreasing fish stocks. The Salween Watch coalition states that if the dams are constructed, an estimated 35,000 Karen will be displaced.28

In order to secure access to much-coveted natural resources and to defeat the KNU, the SPDC has been putting intense pressures on the Karen, and since 1997, has carried out particularly focused military offensives in Mu Traw. The SPDC wants to gain complete control of the area for commercial logging and hydropower development on the Salween River. In 1998, there were 21 battalions in the area. By the end of 2007, there were 45 battalions with a total of 54 military camps in Mu Traw.29 These battalions have been forcing villagers away from project sites and into SPDC-controlled relocation zones by burning and destroying villages. They are also building roads to further solidify control and to bring supplies to the new army camps.

Climate Change

Possible effects of climate change are being felt in Lu Thaw. Heavy, irregular precipitation in the dry season keeps farmers from using controlled fi res to clear farm fields of brush. More rice paddy is being lost to ants, grubs, and termites. Farmers hiding from SPDC/DKBA patrols cannot maintain their crops, and much of the harvest is lost to birds, rats, ants, and other insects.30

Destroyed Villages and IDPs

As mentioned earlier, as part of the SPDC’s Four Cuts policy, Burma Army troops target civilians in their offensives to weaken the KNU by cutting off provisions, supply lines, and other support from the local people. Central to this strategy is the destruction and relocation of villages suspected of supported Karen soldiers. In Mu Traw District, at least 200 villages have been burned down, destroyed, or abandoned since 1997.31 Many villagers flee to the hills or go to the Thai border to avoid relocation to SPDC-controlled sites. Surveys done in 2007 revealed an estimated 30,800 IDPs hiding in the forests in Mu Traw District.32 Food security suffers as the farmers’ fields and areas surrounding the villages are mined to deter villagers from returning. Cultivated land has to be abandoned, and with the danger of landmines, it is impossible to practice traditional farming systems or even harvest the crops that have already been planted. Moreover, because there is no formal land titling system in place, even if IDPs are able to return to their lands in the future, there is a high likelihood of disputes and conflicting claims over land ownership.

SPDC soldiers seek out and destroy seed banks and food supplies in field houses and those hidden in the forest by IDPs, and farmers have a difficult time keeping their seeds and food stores safe. SPDC troops also commonly take food and livestock by force from local communities. Seeds stored in forest shelters are more susceptible to pest damage.33 In eastern Burma, children of families who had their food supplies completely or partially taken or destroyed were much more likely to suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition compared to those whose food supply had not been compromised.34

In the forest, IDP families sleep on the open ground or in small makeshift shelters. Healthcare and education is nearly nonexistent. They must rely on traditional medicine to prevent and cure diseases, and the majority of IDPs are severely malnourished and many face starvation. A health survey done in 2004 has shown that in Karen State and other parts of eastern Burma, families that are displaced are more than three times more likely to have malnourished children compared to households in more stable situations.35 Human rights violations that cause food insecurity also raise villagers’ chances of dying by 50 percent. One medic commented on the IDP situation in Mu Traw:

People have none of the essential needs, like clean water, clothing, mosquito

nets and medicines for illnesses like malaria, dysentery, and diarrhea. They

don’t have enough food and other things, so old women, mothers[,] and

small children are particularly likely to suffer from malnutrition, anemia[,]

and other problems. Their lack of health education or knowledge make the

situation worse – they don’t know what to eat and how they should eat. In

sum, the lack of enough food, different illnesses and unstable conditions

are the main causes of their poor health and malnutrition.36

Relocation Sites and Refugee Camps

Burmese Army soldiers have orders to either shoot the villagers on sight or force them to SPDC relocation sites. As of 2004, there were 14 relocation sites in Mu Traw. While there is a relative peace in theses areas, space is extremely limited. There is little land to grow crops and no paying jobs available for villagers. Fields at relocation sites are being used year after year, allowing no chance for the soil to renew itself. Villagers at these sites face forced labor or portering, working for no pay for the military or for foreign companies that have moved in to Karen State. Burmese soldiers commit human rights abuses including torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings. In addition, villagers in relocation areas have to satisfy demands from the army for food and money. They have to pay taxes and fees and must meet crop quotas under threat of penalty. There are strict curfews, and farmers are constantly laboring for the SPDC. This leaves them little time to plant and care for their crops, resulting in food shortages.

Across the border in Thailand, life in the refugee camps is not easy. Sixty-one percent of refugees in the camps are Karen,37 but they cannot live by traditional means. The camps are very crowded, and there is barely enough space to grow small vegetable gardens, and surrounding forest areas have been exhausted. Refugees are forced to rely entirely on international support for food and other basic living needs. Karen villagers are passionately attached to their land. Many are Animists who worship the spirits of the land and their ancestors. Most would rather die than leave their land and country.38 Many IDPs opt to remain in Burma due to the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in gaining admission to refugee camps in Thailand.


6. Impacts to Traditional Agriculture, Livelihoods, and the Environment

Today in Mu Traw, traditional rotational farming has become almost impossible because of the Burma Army’s movements. Seed varieties that have been cultivated and preserved for generations are being lost. Unsustainable agricultural practices are increasing, resulting in the loss of more and more pristine forest areas.

In the past, Ta Paw Der villagers could freely use forest resources, but now their movement is restricted to certain sections of the forest because of the threat of landmines or the presence of SPDC forces.39 Forest resources are being lost because of non-traditional cultivation practices and the influx of IDPs who have been forced to leave their former lands. Many Karen IDPs try to cultivate small plots of rice in the hills secretly to avoid detection in the lowlands. In order to survive, they must abandon their traditional cultivation methods and are forced to encroach into sloped and virgin forest areas that are not suitable for farming. Under these circumstances, the environment becomes severely degraded.

Since there is not enough land to allow for the traditional fallow period of seven to ten years, fallow periods are now between two to four years, resulting in poor quality crops and reduced soil fertility. Because of lower soil fertility, farmers must use more rice seeds over greater acreage. Many communities in Karen State have been forced to further encroach onto old growth forest land. One villager commented:

In the past I didn’t cultivate on very sloped land and in the very old forest.

But now because we have to leave our land and move around, there is not

enough land to cultivate, and we have to do it in the old forest. If we do not

do this, we cannot survive. I know that these are not good places to cultivate,

but I have no choice. In the past the other villagers never cultivated

in the deep forest either, but like me, they have no choice. This problem is

because of the civil war. If the civil war in the area [does not] stop, we will

be faced with many more problems for our lives. Our land will be lost, and

the environment will be even more destroyed.

IDPs also survive by collecting and selling non-timber forest products like wild yams, honey, cardamom, bamboo, and rattan for a modest income.


IDP Relief Efforts

Some organizations carry out relief missions in Karen State, providing emergency medical care, food, shelter, clothing, and human rights documentation. Free Burma Rangers focus primarily on medical care, and groups like the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) and the Karen Office for Relief and Development (KORD) supply basic food and shelter. IDPs sometimes are able to secure financial assistance from organizations such as KORD to buy food, with some using these funds to purchase specialty items from border areas and resell them in IDP zones.40

Other groups like the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) document human rights abuses committed the SPDC and the DKBA.41 In addition, Back Pack Health Worker Teams oversee medical aid, health campaigns, and water and sanitation projects in IDP areas.42 Education groups such as the Karen Teacher Working Group (KTWG) provide teaching training and curriculum support materials to IDPs.

While these groups are able to provide emergency care and a modicum of social services, such efforts are small in scale, and the need is much greater than they can meet. Moreover, relief workers are also themselves under significant physical risks. Some have been killed by the SPDC or have died or been injured by landmines, diseases, and drowning.


7. Community-Based Food Security Coping Strategies

KESAN’s Food Security Program

War and development-induced displacement have caused severe forest degradation in many areas in Karen State. Food security of local Karen communities is compromised as agricultural practices are under threat and many traditional seed varieties and wild edible species are being lost. Time and land constraints have pushed farmers to practice less sophisticated and less ecologically sustainable cropping techniques and consequently cultivate fewer varieties. The civil war is directly responsible for internal displacement and the decrease in both cultivated and wild species, resulting in starvation, malnutrition, and environmental degradation.

As a response, KESAN has introduced a number of strategies at the local level to guarantee farmland, promote food security, and ensure social, economic, and environmental benefits to Karen people. It began a food security program began in 2006 with the aim to conserve biodiversity and reduce negative environmental impacts, improve food security, and maintain sustainable indigenous farming systems and knowledge. It also strengthens livelihoods and encourages community self-reliance. Objectives of the food security program are:

1. To increase food security through supporting farmer-based initiatives that aim to strengthen local livelihoods and encourage self-reliance;

2. To investigate land takings by the military regime and mega-projects;

3. To work alongside local communities to practice, document, and share sustainable agriculture skills, indigenous knowledge, local resources, and appropriate technologies;

4. To provide agricultural education and training at various levels to improve food security;

5. To plan and implement natural disaster relief and food crisis coping strategies;

6. To development and document land policy and programs which will contribute to sustainable use, management, and protection of land traditionally belonging to indigenous Karen people;

7. To cooperate with communities and organizations working on agricultural issues for improved food security and better incomes; and

8. To build local organizational capacities to carry out activities effectively.

Workshop on food security

Workshop on food security

Community-based food security initiatives began in five districts in Karen State in 2004. These include theory and practicum-based organic agriculture, seed-saving, and nutrition trainings; construction of irrigation canals and other small infrastructure projects; establishment of organic gardens and animal husbandry projects; and research on local food security issues and solutions. Trainings have focused on composting, soil conservation, rotational and contour farming, herbal pesticides, natural pest control, and effective micro-organisms and seedlings.

In 2008, the establishment of a central seed bank made a significant step in preserving the biodiversity of both wild and cultivated species. A seed-saving training was held to encourage farmers to maintain traditional agriculture practices, increase production of nutritious food, and ensure more local seeds are saved and available for exchange. To date, KESAN has helped oversee 20 community food security projects. A decision-making body composed of agricultural leaders coordinate food security activities and approve proposals for local projects. The hope is that projects will be self-sustaining after a few years.

In addition, young Karen refugees are receiving agriculture training from an international NGO on the Thai-Burmese border, which will allow them in turn to train IDPs in Karen State. In late 2008, following months of research and data collection, KESAN printed and distributed 1,000 copies of a pamphlet on traditional food preservation techniques such as drying, pickling, and storing. This allows for stronger food security and greater variation and nutrition in diet year round, as rainy season plants can now be eaten in the dry season, and vice versa. Books were distributed inside Karen State and in two refugee camps.

Furthermore, a manual on sustainable agriculture and traditional farming techniques has been produced and 1,000 copies were distributed inside Karen State and along the Thai-Burmese border. There are plans to establish an agriculture school for organic farming training in Karen State in 2009-2010.

As of May 2009, the food security project has achieved the following tangible results:

  • Organic agriculture, seed saving, and general food security awareness trainings have taken place. Many households have created organic gardens
    • 19 food security awareness trainings have benefited 487 participants, 191 women and 296 men.
    • 8 organic agriculture trainings and household gardens benefi t 135 individuals, 52 women and 83 men.
    • 2 one month-long seed-saving training held with 16 participants (9 women, 7 men) from different areas of Karen state. 670 kilos of 17 varieties of local seeds were saved and given to a border-based NGO to distribute in refugee camps in Thailand, where refugees currently have access to only hybrid seeds.
  • In 2008, one buffalo bank set up with four water buffalos in a village in Karen State. Farmers repaid buffalo loans with 16 baskets of rice to support fellow farmers who experienced poor harvests.
  • In 2008, one pig and catfish-raising training was held in a refugee camp on the border, benefiting 94 villagers (56 men and 38 women).
  • Over 600 Karen community members understand more about the importance of practicing sustainable indigenous agriculture systems
  • 28 local resource people from a Karen farmers group have been trained in local food security problems and solutions, global food security issues, practical training (such as composting and natural pest management), community-based project management, and proposal and report writing.
  • 40 traditional recipes for nutritious cooking and traditional food preservation has been collected and published as a book, with 1,000 copies distributed as a traditional recipe and food preservation book in late 2008
  • 1000 copies of a manual on sustainable agriculture methods using traditional indigenous knowledge has been published and distributed inside Karen State in 2009.


8. Conclusions

Karen people have successfully used traditional methods for managing natural resources, preserving biodiversity, and maintaining local food security for centuries. Indigenous knowledge and methods are directly linked to agricultural practices and deeply rooted in Karen culture. The longstanding civil war, however, is having a great effect on the traditional livelihood and food resources and is preventing the Karen from using their environment in a sustainable manner that aligns with their indigenous practices. In addition, the Karen, who have been customarily been self-sufficient for all their living needs, can no longer support, feed, and sustain themselves.

The right to food is a basic human right guaranteed under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.43 The SPDC’s targeting of civilian populations is a violation of the Geneva Conventions to which Burma is a signatory. International norms stipulate that civilians living in occupied territory under the authority of a hostile army—such as the SPDC and the DKBA—are protected from violence and threats to their human security. This means that the military regime is obliged to provide food, medical, and material relief to the Karen and civilian populations in conflict zones and facilitate humanitarian access.44 But instead of supporting civilians and protecting them from the conflict, the SPDC is directly targeting them.

Burma army operations greatly hamper the Karen’s access to food and cause a reduction in the quality, quantity, and variety of food available for locals. People in Karen State now face various problems that disrupt food production, including reduced availability of agricultural land, confiscation of food and produce, forced labor which interferes with the ability of villagers to cultivate or collect food for subsistence, attacks by the SPDC, forced migration and abandonment of crops, indiscriminate use of landmines, and population pressure from IDP movements, leading to loss of plants traditionally gathered from the wild.

Ta Paw Der Village is just one example of how the civil war has caused a disruption in traditional agriculture and indigenous practices and has led to severe environmental degradation and ingrained poverty. In this area, the villagers have been forced to encroach onto pristine areas of forest land and abandon customary agricultural practices. This in turn is resulting in a loss of biodiversity of both cultivated and collected plant species, thereby intensifying threats to food security.

Food security in Ta Paw Der is not yet a serious problem, but people there are facing both increasing shortages of forest products and lower crop yields. The Karen culture is being eroded as they are forced to use traditionally protected land. Attacks against civilians and violations of property rights destroy communities and affects social capital networks and existing social systems for building houses and planting and harvesting rice. The communities are frightened of losing their valuable forest resources and traditional way of life, but they do not know how to survive in these conditions. They realize that the short-term solution of encroachment on pristine lands causes serious long-term environmental problems, but with the ongoing civil war, they have little or no choice.45

The situation is even bleaker in other areas of Karen State. To a certain extent, food coping strategies and interventions like the ones mentioned above can help prevent starvation and malnourishment, rejuvenate indigenous agrarian knowledge and practices, preserve the local environment, and offer hope. Most importantly, such projects have proven to be extremely effective in restoring some of the communities’ former self-reliance. Because of the difficulty in implementing such programs in a war zone, however, such interventions do not reach all of the needy in Karen State. Priority should be put on maximizing all possible financial and material support for initiatives that address the interlinked issues of environmental protection and food security to raise the self-reliance of local Karen.

External interventions are strictly prohibited by SPDC, and any effort to build up a local environmental movement likely will be quashed by the military authorities. The local people are aware of the need for a change in environmental management throughout Karen State, but the political instability and violence prevent this, and the villagers concentrate mostly on daily survival instead of the protection of their natural resources and cultural practices.

Planting the community garden

Planting the community garden


9. Recommendations: Thoughts and Concerns for the Future

Rotational farming has been done for many generations, and we still have

forests. The Karen have the knowledge to take care of their rivers, the forest,

and the environment. If there was no civil war, we could have a permanent

village and wouldn’t have to move to other places [as IDPs]. We would be

happy with our own land and would be able to lead sustainable lives. There

would be no need to keep cutting the forest for cultivation. When you cultivate

in new areas of forest it is difficult to tell the proper times for planting

and difficult to read the land. We cannot properly rotate on the land now.

We not only grow rice, but we have to grow other vegetable crops to make

curry for our meals, which is a problem because there is not enough land.

If the civil war continues, the community cannot develop their village well.

If there was no war and displacement, we would be able to maintain our

traditions and live in the forest and on the land sustainably.

- Karen villager

When asked about the future of their forest resources, most Karen villagers thought that they would be able to use the forest in a sustainable way if the fighting stopped and if they were able to freely practice their traditional cultivation methods. Most villagers are discouraged and have lost hope, feeling that nothing can be done until the end of the war. This fatalistic view among the villagers makes it difficult to implement changes.

If villages are free of violence, politically secure, and allowed to develop and remain as permanent settlements, Karen communities would have the much-desired sense of safety, stability, and normalcy. If a community is not under continual threat of military attacks and human rights abuses, villagers can live peaceful lives in a healthy environment. The instability of villages prevents the implementation of long-term environmental and development projects, despite an awareness of the urgent need for such things. One local Karen leader said, “If you cannot set up a stable village, then [it is extremely difficult to] develop projects to help protect the forests and environment.” For all Karen, as a group living in a conflict area, survival is the highest priority. The protection of lives is a much more pressing concern that detracts from the less-immediate need for long-term management of natural resources.

Ta Paw Der and other local Karen communities acknowledge that the protracted war creates an urgent need for more knowledge regarding sustainable forest management. They want and need leaders to take responsibility for formulating and enforcing rules to conserve their resources. As with all such initiatives, it is essential that in all community members are able to participate in the entire process. The people with experience need to share their knowledge with others, and the policy makers and those with power must take responsibility and set examples for the villagers by working closely with the people to conserve their environment and its natural diversity.46

Community organic garden in full production

Community organic garden in full production

Specifically, KESAN, with input from local communities, proposes the following recommendations:

1.) To the SPDC, DKBA, KNU, and other armed groups: Refrain from targeting civilians in any and all military operations and hostilities, and to make every effort to limit the impacts of fighting on unarmed villagers. There must be an immediate end to all human rights abuses committed against civilians, including threats to their physical safety and well-being and confiscation and destruction of housing, land, and property.

Landmines regular maim and injure civilians and must be removed. Their use should be discontinued by all sides of the conflict, and the military government should consider signing and enforcing the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer or Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction.

Displaced and dispossessed villagers should have an option of returning to their former ancestral and agricultural lands. Any expropriation of food and materials from locals must be accompanied by the expressed free consent of villagers and just compensation.

2.) To local leaders and communities: Develop a comprehensive formal land titling and registration system that will document ownership of village lands in Karen State (and in other conflict areas in Burma) and create a record which may enable compensation for or restoration of land taken by war and development-induced displacement and confiscation.

3.) To relief organizations administering aid to the Karen: Put additional focus on working with communities to build local capacities and develop strategies—such as those in KESAN’s food security program—to cope with displacement and threats to food security and to strengthen self-reliance and maintain local seed varieties and biological diversity.

4.) To international NGOs: Increase support for initiatives that specifically focus on meeting the needs of IDPs.

5.) To the international community: Continue to put pressure on the Burma’s military government on general democratic reforms and for a more humane approach in treating ethnic minorities and civilians in armed conflict zones.

Harvest from the community garden

Harvest from the community garden


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.




1 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit Plan of Action,” adopted at the World Food Summit, 13-17 November 1996, Rome, Italy.

2 Danna Harman, “Burma’s wealth gap breeds discontent,” The Christian Science Monitor, 24 Apr. 2008, at: <>. Last accessed 9 Dec. 2008.

3 The KNU, one of the largest armed ethnic groups, has been fi ghting against successive Burmese governments for independence for the Karen people since January 1949. This protracted confl ict is the world’s longest running civil war. The DKBA split from the KNU and formed an alliance with the SPDC. The DKBA is funded by the SPDC and essentially a government-backed militia. At the junta’s behest, the DKBA has carried out numerous attacks and campaigns against the KNU and Karen civilians.

4 A Burmese proverb in Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Burma Country Report 2007: Displacement and Dispossession: Forced Migration and Land Rights, p. 117, at: <>. Last accessed 9 Dec. 2008.

5 Online Burma/Myanmar Library, “13. Internally Displaced People and Forced Relocation,” at: <>. Last accessed 9 Dec. 2008.

6 Back Pack Health Worker Team, Chronic Emergency: Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma, 7 Sept. 2006, p. 9 [hereinafter “Chronic Emergency”].

7 Chronic Emergency, p.38.

8 Karen Human Rights Group, “Supporting IDP Resistance Strategies,” 23 Apr. 2008, at: <>. Last accessed 16 Dec. 2008.

9 Karen Human Rights Group, “Attacks, kills and food crisis in Papun District,”4 Feb. 2009, at: <>. Last accessed 12 Feb. 2009.

10 Burma Issues, Shoot on Sight: The ongoing offensive against villagers in northern Karen State, Dec. 2006, p. 8.

11 KHRG, supra note 9.

12 Burma Issues, supra note 10, p. 11.

13 Burma Ethnic Research Group, Forgotten Victims of a Hidden War: Internally Displaced Karen in Burma, Apr. 1998, p. 11. See also, Hal Lipper, “The Karen Legacy,” The Nation (Thailand), 8 Oct. 2006, at: <>. Last accessed 9 Dec. 2008.

14 Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, Diversity Degraded, Dec. 2005, at p. 13 [hereinafter “Diversity Degraded”]. See also Back Pack Health Worker Team, supra note 6, p. 12. Burma Environmental Working Group 93

15 Human Rights Watch, “They came and destroyed our village again: The Plight of IDPs in Karen State,” June 2005, at: <>. Last accessed 9 Dec. 2008.

16 Ibid.

17 FAO, supra note 1, p. 14.

18 Diversity Degraded, p. 13.

19 FAO, supra note 1, p.21.

20 FAO, supra note 1, p.25.

21 Diversity Degraded, p. 29.

22 Thailand Burma Border Consortium, International Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma, Oct. 2008, p. 30.

23 KESAN interview with the Karen Offi ce of Relief and Development. Thai-Burmese border. 22 Jan. 2009.

24 Committee of Internally Displaced Karen People, fi eld survey, June 2009.

25 KESAN, supra note 14, p.27.

26 Having the DKBA in the area in addition to Burma Army troops puts even great pressure on villagers’ livelihoods and food security. Diversity Degraded, p.15.

27 Thailand Burma Border Consortium, 2007 Survey: Internal Displacement in Eastern Burma, Dec. 2007, at p. 67.

28 Will Baxter, “Thailand and Myanmar at Odds over Salween Dams,” 13 Dec. 2006, at: <>.

29 KESAN interview, supra note 24.

30 KHRG, supra note 9.

31 Diversity Degraded, p.15.

32 TBBC 2007 Survey, supra note 27.

33 Diversity Degraded, p.38.

34 Chronic Emergency, p. 55.

35 Chronic Emergency, p. 47.

36 Chronic Emergency, p. 64.

37 Thai Burma Border Consortium, “TBBC’s camp population fi gures Mar. 2009,”at: < camps/2009-03-mar-map-tbbc-unhcr.pdf >. Last accessed 30 Apr. 2009.

38 Diversity Degraded, p.16.

39 Diversity Degraded, p. 21.

40 KESAN interview, supra note 24.

41 Free Burma Rangers, “380 Newly Displaced Karen People Arrive at the Salween River. Over 5000 Now in Hiding,” 28 Mar. 2006, at: <>. Last accessed 12 Feb. 2009.

42 Mae Tao Clinic website, “Back Pack Health Worker Teams,” at: <>. Last accessed 12 Feb. 2008.

43 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Art. 25.1.

44 Geneva Conventions Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, adopted 12 Aug. 1949, entry into force 21 Oct. 1950, Art. 3.1.

45 Diversity Degraded, p.25.

46 Diversity Degraded, pp. 58-59.

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