Land reserved for oil palm plantations has increased rapidly in Myanmar, particularly in the Southern Tanintharyi Region. Following the 2012 ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union (KNU), many former conflict zones became attractive for (foreign) investment. Between 2011 and 2016, no less than 1,9 million acres (ca. 769,000 ha) were reportedly granted to oil palm companies. However, only a small share of the land is actually developed into plantations, while parts of the remaining concession areas seems to be used for timber logging . The Myanmar Auto Corporation (MAC) has received the largest oil palm concession in the Tanintharyi region, Myanmar. The concession covering 133,600 acres (ca. 54,000 ha) has caused deep conflicts with customary users over land grabbing, environmental change and deforestation. Affected villagers, together with a group of civil society organizations documented the impacts and the arising conflict in the report “Behind the Oil Palm: Consequences of international investment into oil palm plantations”, published in March 2018 (see ).
According to the report, the MAC concession was granted in October 2011. It is located in Kawthaung District, in an area characterized by over 60 years of ethnic conflict between the Burmese government and the Karen National Union (KNU). After receiving the permit for the plantation, MAC undertook onsite inspections, with the help of local guides. Timber extraction began over the coming months, and a MAC office opened in mid-2012. The actual planting of oil palms remained however limited and the company rather seemed to target the timber business. At the end of 2012, MAC was rejected a permission to build a plywood factory. An inspection by the Director General of Myanmar Forest Department followed, who warned that MAC must establish an oil palm plantation. Nevertheless, timber transport begun in mid-2014 in collaboration with Yadanar Moe Pyae Tun Co. Ltd. At the end of 2016, less than 4,000 acres (ca. 1,600 ha) of land were planted with oil palms, although about 10,000 acres (ca. 4,500 ha) of forest land was clear-cut .
Several villages largely comprised of Kayin (Karen) ethnic minorities are located within the concession area. Those villages located closest (Ma Noe Yone, Ma Noe Lar, and Htaung Kha Met) have been most affected by the concession . The report indicates violations of national laws (such as the 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law, or the 2012 Environmental Conservation Law), a lack of compliance with international investment standards, as well as lacking transparency . There is no evidence of the submission of an environmental impact assessment (EIA). Furthermore, a lack of consultation with the ethnic communities who were the original land owners was documented, as well as a a failure to comply with the principles of free prior and informed consent (FPIC): “They did not inform or consult with us prior to the project implementation. I knew that my land was included within the project area when they cleared the land with bulldozers.” (A villager from Ma Noe Yone, cited in , page 28). Villagers say that their land was furthermore confiscated without compensation.
The concession area includes community lands cleared for oil palm cultivation [1,2]. Since the project start, about 2,500 acres of community gardens and jack-fruit plantations have been destroyed . Villagers’ access to important local plants used as medicine, herbs and vegetable has decreased severely. Wildlife is disappearing and distances for collecting forest products such as firewood, rattan or bamboo have increased. The company brought some new jobs and wages have been higher than in other local companies. However, employment opportunities have become more insecure over time and the project’s socio-economic and environmental impacts are large, informs the report . As one villager said: “Before the Company came in, we could harvest about 1000 rattan stems in a week and sell with a price of 250 MMK for larger stem and 50 MMK for the smaller one. Now-a-days, the Company comes in, forests are destroyed, number of rattan reduces, and we can’t earn our livelihood by rattan collection.” [cited in 2, page 31].
The environmental sustainability of the region is also under threat . The concession is located in an important biodiversity area. Deforestation is growing since project start. Water scarcity has become an issue due to destruction of fresh water sources and changes in the forest ecosystem. Several wild animals and plant species have disappeared since the project development .
Timber extraction seems to be the main reasons for land conversion, while the oil palm concession itself acts as cover up, argues the civil society report . Most workers employed by MAC were engaged in timber extraction rather than in the oil palm plantations. At several locations, oil palms were only planted next to the road, which gives the impression of large planted areas when driving through. Satellite images reveal however that only little land has been actually planted (see [1,2] and pictures). In March 2018, only about 4% (3,351 acres) of the concession had been converted into plantations, while about 16,000 acres of forest have been cleared [1,2]. Several log yards have been established along the Lenya River to transport timber and export it to international markets. According to locals, about 13,000 tons of timber have been harvested, but research suggests that the actual amount of timber extraction has been much higher (, see Project Details, below). As one villager said: “In the past, forest was dense with large trees and wild animals are everywhere. But now, closed forest has been cleared and animals are gone.” (affected villager, cited in [2, page 42]).
Demands for redress have been made by affected people and civil society organizations. Villagers whose land was seized want their land back, as well as compensation for the loss of fruit trees and crops . During June 5 and 13, 2017, several meetings between MAC management staff, villagers and KNU officers were held to discuss the compensation claims and the demands to re-allocation land back to the villagers. While MAC agreed to work with the community to resolve the issue, no commitment to return lands and to pay compensations were made, states the report . An inspection of the concession followed in November 2017. Representatives of the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), and of the Agriculture, Forest and Land Management Departments visited the site. In March 2018, the civil society organizations Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM), Southern Youth Organization (SYO), Myeik Lawyer Network, Future Light Committee, Green Network-Mergui Archipelago, Candle Light Group, in collaboration with the NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), published the above-mentioned reported that documented in detail the impacts and related conflicts . A press conference was held in Yangon, during which the results were presented. During the press conference, also a theatrical performance was held by the organizers that illustrated the conflict between the villagers and the company.
The civil society organizations have put forward several recommendations (see ). Among them are that the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) should inspect and control the concession for compliance with the terms and conditions and to implement inclusive redress mechanisms. The KNU should help ethnic minorities in obtaining customary land tenure. Furthermore, land not developed so far must be reallocated to the original land owners – the ethnic communities. MAC has been urged to provide fair and just compensation for caused damages, to reallocate land back to the communities, and to comply with existing standards and law such as FPIC and EIA requirements . In April 2018, Myanmar Business Today reported that the Union government announced plans to take back part of the approved area and return it to the original local owners – the villagers . As of late 2018, it remains unclear if and how these plans have been further developed.