In Myanmar, Natural Resources Are Key to Conflict Resolution

One of the world's longest running conflicts came to an end last year when the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire agreement with the newly elected government of Myanmar. The agreement came after a bloody, six-decade struggle for independence. The ethnic Karen population, long persecuted by the nation's former military regime, inhabits a landscape in the Thaninthayi region along Myanmar's southeast border with Thailand that is rich in natural capital.

The transboundary forests along that border hold some of the region's greatest biodiversity, including what are believed to be its best remaining populations of tigers and elephants. These forests are also home to more than a million people who depend on the region's vast ecological resources, both inland and along the adjacent coastline on the Andaman Sea. The cessation of hostilities has opened up previously inaccessible areas and thus increased pressure on these natural assets.

Earlier this year in Myanmar, I spoke to a variety of conservation colleagues, government officials, and diplomats from across the globe. Then more recently I was fortunate to meet President Thein Sein on his May visit to Washington, D.C.. Time and again, all addressed the seemingly intractable challenge of transitioning to peace after years of internal conflict. It returned me to a time when I was involved in peace negotiations in my home country, Colombia, and the realization that reconciliation and access to natural resources are intimately linked.

As refugees and soldiers return to normal life in Thaninthayi the challenge is twofold. On the one hand, to prosper from new development in the area, they must adopt sustainable forms of income generation and forest management practices. On the other, mechanisms must be established to enable all people to share the benefits of the natural resources and ensure they are not taken by government cronies or local elites.

Plans exist already for a major port and industrial complex at Dawei, coupled with a highway linked to Bangkok. Also underway are plans to upgrade the Bangkok to Yangon railway to increase trade between the two countries, as well as a number of other trans-border roads. With an expanding transportation network, local forests are being eyed for conversion to oil palm and other agricultural plantations.

While these development efforts could help the region prosper, without careful planning they carry an increased risk of deforestation and lost resources for communities that have already suffered under years of war. As commercial investment quickly advances, unique opportunities exist for the Governments of Myanmar and Thailand, the KNU, local communities, development agencies, conservationists, and other stakeholders to work together to secure the wealth of these forests for the future.

The hope is that in addition to benefiting the wildlife and wild places along this biodiverse border area, such collaborations will promote greater political stability, rural livelihood options, and a more lasting peace in Thaninthayi and in the other areas along the border that have seen ethnic conflict in recent years. Now, following the recent agreement to cease hostilities, in Kachin State, such advances may even extend to these similarly important and biodiverse areas to the north, where, until the resumption of fighting two years ago, WCS had long worked with local communities helping to conserve and facilitate their rights to forest resources.

Many of the grievances of Myanmar's ethnic communities relate to access to natural resources and a feeling of disempowerment from the nation's political process. A high proportion of these communities live near the poverty line. Corrupt elites controlling local resources have exacerbated the feeling of inequality. But as natural resources have been the cause of Myanmar's conflicts, they are also a key part of the solution.

WCS's Myanmar Program has worked to develop a project to facilitate just such a solution based on our more than two decades of work in almost every corner of the country. In key forest areas we are consulting with local communities to create maps that identify their existing claims to land and forest resources. We believe that these communities must have both the access to those resources and the capacity to sustainably manage them in perpetuity.

In my experience in Colombia, such collaborations proved inordinately fruitful. WCS has seen similar results through its efforts in nations as diverse as South Sudan and Afghanistan, demonstrating the power of conservation to ameliorate conflict and promote the growth of civil society. If Myanmar is to give the recent peace a feeling of permanence, therefore, it must begin with the equitable and sustainable distribution of its magnificent natural resources.