The proposed Tanintharyi National Park is part of a series of conservation zones planned to be established in Southern Myanmar. The project has caused severe concerns over social and livelihood impacts on indigenous forest dwellers. A group of civil society organizations, called the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT), launched a report in Feburary 2018 entitled “Our Forest, Our Life” that examines the threats of conservation to customary forest users. The report [see 1] documents the vital role of the affected people in maintaining and protecting the biodiverse environment and demands that they must not be excluded from the forest area proposed to be turned into a National Park.
The Tanintharyi National Park was proposed in 2002 and covers an area of about 207,000 ha . It is comprised of unique habitats and is home to many large mammals, such as sambar deer, Asian elephants, red gorals, leopards and many other species . The area has also been home to many indigenous Karen communities who have relied on biodiverse shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering, fishing, paddy farming and livestock raising for their livelihoods. While the boundaries of the park have already been demarcated, the plans to establish the park have been recently stalled, states the report, and the conservation areas was dropped from the Ridge to Reef project – a large-scale conservation project in Tanintharyi region that has the aim of securing long-term biodiversity protection. There are however fears of revival of the plans in the context of the establishment of a massive biodiversity conservation zone and corridor across the Tenasserim Hills of Tanintharyi .
The park would threaten indigenous communities who have been living within the boundaries, says CAT, if the plans for the park are revived . According to the report, there are 42 villages with a population of ca. 14,181 people located within the boundaries of the proposed conservation zone, of which most of them have not been properly informed. 30 of these villages are predominantly of Karen ethnicity and some of them are more than 200 years old . The establishment of the Park as a Protected Area would turn the forest into an exclusionary zone, designated under the 1994 Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Natural Areas Law. According to the law, local communities would have no access rights to the core zone of the protected area, which poses severe risks on their livelihoods. People caught conducting traditional subsistence activities within the core zone would have to face fines or could be arrested [see 1].
During the civil war, about 33 of the villages located within the conservation zone were abandoned and many of them destroyed, documents the report. Since 2014, some of the villagers who had to flee during the armed conflict have started to return to their old lands many more are likely to follow over the coming years. The establishment of the National Park would threaten the right of the internally displaced people (IDPs) to return to their homelands, says the civil society alliance . Moreover, the government-controlled National Park proposal located in areas of mixed administration between the Myanmar Union Government and the Karen National Union (KNU) threatens a fragile peace process between the parties and has led to rising tensions .
Social mobilizations against the expansion of top-down conservation zones and for the support of indigenous biodiversity conservation have arisen, as seen through the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT) - a coalition of seven Karen civil society groups founded in 2014. Their report launched in early 2018 received wide press coverage [e.g., 3,4,5] and documented how customary land and resource management practices of Karen communities are effective ways of maintaining and conserving the unique habitat and species biodiversity. Known as ‘Kaw’, this resource use system is based on the culture and tradition of Karen livelihoods and contains specified rules for resource use, monitoring, sanctioning and dispute resolution among community members. The customary land use system has a proven record of protecting high conservation value forests, they say  (see also 6,7).
Villagers living within the proposed conservation area have also actively protected the forest area from conversion to industrial cash crops. In 2014, the Myanmar Maha Da Nan company proposed to plant 68,000 acres (ca. 27,000 ha) of rubber and oil palm within the high conservation value forest close to Htee Wa Sha Gone (Para Ku) village. About one year later, in 2015, the Myeik A Mya Pai company proposed a 100,000 acre (ca. 40,000 ha) biofuel plantation. In both cases, the villagers united to oppose the projects and the companies were not able to develop their plans, the report informs .
Instead of a top-down, centralized large-scale conservation approach, driven by international conservation organizations, groups call for biodiversity conservation led by indigenous communities and their sustainable resource uses (see proposed alternatives, below, and for instance 6,7). “Conservation organizations working in Tanintharyi have so far failed to acknowledge the importance of Karen communities as forest defenders in protecting forest resources from outside incursions” (1, page 25).