The development of the massive Yuzana Co. agricultural concession within territories of ethnic Kachin communities have caused a bitter struggle against land grabbing, as the civil society organization Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) has reported for more than a decade . The 200,000 acres (81,000ha) “agricultural development zone” concession was granted by Senior General Than Shwe in 2006 to the Yuzana company, which is among the biggest Burmese companies (see project details). The formal purpose of the concession was to develop biofuel crops (cassava, jatropha and sugarcane) to feed the Chinese biofuels markets . It is in an area where locals lived and relied on subsistence agriculture and forest products for decades before the concession arrived. The area is also incredibly rich in biodiversity and inhabits globally threatened species such as the Panthera tigris.
The area underwent rapid changes since the turn of the millennium. The international organization Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began to work with the military regime to establish a Tiger reserve in 2001. The reserve’s size was tripled in 2004, which turned it into the largest tiger reserve in the world. During this process, WCS was strongly criticized for not having respected local villagers needs in the establishment of the reserve, and for not including them into related decision-making process, whereas for the military regime present at that time, the reserve establishment served as a green-washing of their activities [1,3]. The agricultural concession was granted to Yuzana in 2006. In 2007, construction work started and locals were forcibly relocated. The first company barracks were constructed in Wazarup village. In 2009, the company constructed a factory in the so-called “Yuzana village”, between Bang Kawk and Wazarup village. Yuzana village is a gated area with housing, factory and storage for the company, surrounded by private security and Burmese army soldiers . According to a KDNG report , WCS consistently failed to critically mention Yuzana’s destructive actions related to the development of the plantations and the company’s infrastructure within the tiger reserve.
The concession drastically changed the local environmental. Pristine forests, used by locals in non-destructive ways , and being home to many wild animals, were transformed by heavy machinery into a massive monoculture of sugarcane, jatropha and cassava crops . Timber stocks were extracted by the company from the area, through which the concession contributed to massive deforestation [1, see also 4]. Wild animals have disappeared and the application of herbicides affected the sensitive environment . The company complex furthers lacks adequate waste and excretion treatment, which so far has been dumped into nearby rivers. Consequently, fish stocks have decreased as well as the quality of water, used daily by nearby villagers .
According to the KDNG report , the social impacts have been devastating, as ethnic Kachin villagers fundamentally rely on access to land and on a healthy environment for their livelihoods. Since 2007, the land of hundreds of farmers was seized, with support from local military authorities and government officials. Furthermore, workers destroyed and digged up villagers’ cultural sites and cemeteries, bulldozing the dead bodies of their ancestors. Fishing and firewood collection in surrounding areas was prohibited, which further increased villagers’ hardship and food insecurity. Arbitrary rules contrary to traditional practices were set up for farmers (like, growing rice in dry seasons, or produce tri-monthly crops), whereas failure to comply with them would result in land confiscation by the authorities. People were forced to apply to move to the relocation site, and threatened if they would not do so. Compensation payments were absent or insufficient. Left with nothing, many were forced to work for the company, and thus became wage laborers on their own land. Others, who were provided a house and two acres of replacement land, were not allowed to grow anything else than cassava and sell it to the company. A massive instream of thousands of under-paid laborers, working under harsh conditions, has transformed social relations in the area . Finally, also the concession also led to heavy militarization of the area. In 2010, it was reported that 200 soldiers were based at the company site for security patrols and about 800 Yuzana employees – most of which were former soldiers - received military training [1,2]. During 2011, the company was also alleged of stockpiling weapons for the Burmese army within the company area .
Large conflicts flared up between company employees, local authorities and villagers that often turned violent . Conflict escalated in 2010 in Ban Kawk village, when on January 30, bulldozers began clearing villagers land and houses and about 30 villagers gathered to stop them. A few days later, on 3 February 2010, police officers went from house to house, beating people out of their homes, while stealing their belongings. Six locals were arrested, including a two-months old baby . As of February 2010, 163 families were forced into so-called “model villages”, which are relocation sites with inadequate facilities and conditions. Others were forced to accept insufficient compensation through intimidation .
Despite these devastating impacts and the powerful actors behind the company, villagers bravely resisted to protect and demand back their land and livelihoods. A social committee was formed to support each other and villagers began to document with detail the damages caused by the company. Their acts of resistance have been numerous. They included many appeals and petitions to the local and national authorities, prayer ceremonies, refusal to leave their land, stopping of bulldozers, the destruction of Yuzana’s crops, and a relentless reclaiming of their fields and homes . In June 2007, the Hugawng Valley Farmer Social Committee sent a letter of appeal signed by about 800 farmers calling for a halt of the project [1,3]. Villagers also reached out to national parties, such as the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar, as well as to international organizations such as the International Labour Organization (March 2010), calling for an investigation of Yuzana’s activities. In July 2010, villagers opened a court cases against the company in Kachin state . In September 2014, a campaign against the project was organized in several villagers, within people voted about the company activities. More than 1,000 people voted. 95% of the locals were against the Yuzana project .
While the conflict remains, villagers continue to resist and oppose the project. On 10 May 2016, no less than 8,603 locals submitted a petition to Myanmar’s president, requesting to return the lands confiscated by Yuzana Company in Hugawng valley .