The Tanintharyi Nature Reserve (TNR) was among the first protected areas in Tanintharyi region. Established in 2005 in Yebyu and Dawei townships, the conservation zone covers about 170,000 ha . The project is funded by major gas companies that run three pipelines across the area and the main aim is to compensate for some impacts on biodiversity caused by the pipelines and support facilities. In relation to this aim, the conservation project is proposed to continue for the lifetime of the pipelines, at least until 2028 (see Project Details, below).
While the TNR is currently the only terrestrial protected area in Tanintharyi, plans are being made to massively extend conservation zones in the region . Despite being promoted as a successful conservation project by the Myanmar government and the Wildlife Conservation Society [see 2 and 6], a new report, published in 2018 by an alliance of seven civil society groups, argues the protected area has a “troubling history of human rights violations” [Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT) report, see 1, page 12. See also related conflict, Yadana gas field and pipeline, Myanmar).
For generations, the forests located in the Nature Reserve have supplied ample livelihood resources for Karen, Dawei and Mon communities. In the past, they lived in dispersed settlements across the area and practiced shifting cultivation - a land use practice recognized for its important positive effects on biodiversity . The area also hosted villagers’ betel nut and fruit orchards and the forest provided them with food, medicine, water and shelter [1, see also 4].
During the civil war, most villagers were forced to move into controlled settlement areas and many of those who refused to do so had to flee to bordering Thailand. The civil war and the military measures to establish controlled hamlets left many areas temporarily vacated, which were later taken to establish the TNR. However, the land was “neither virgin nor vacant”, the report says “but the land of IDPs and refugees who would soon return to reclaim their homes and agricultural lands” .
There was no prior consultation and consent of local communities and the internationally recognized rights of internally displaced people (IDPs) to return safely and voluntarily to their homelands have not been respected, says the report . Instead of considering the rights of the IDPs, and the biodiversity sustained by indigenous practices [see e.g. 3, 5], many of their traditional livelihood activities were subsequently considered as “chief threats to [the] conservation targets” [2, page 20]. Many who are returning now following the 2012 ceasefire agreement find themselves unable to resettle but dispossessed of their traditional livelihood resources and cultural environment .
The CAT alliance of civil society groups says the “Tanintharyi Nature Reserve legalized the forced exclusion of Karen people from their customary lands under the guise of conservation”. Given the plans to massively extend protected areas in Tanintharyi region, the groups remind that “new protected areas in the region must not repeat this same human rights violation” [1, page 13]. Instead of top-down conservation planning, approaches led by and centred on indigenous people are required.