A 1,200 mile long photographic journey, documenting the fear, faith and everyday survival of those living in exile.
Mindat, Chin state, Myanmar – The air is cool and fresh on the slopes of Mount Natma Taung, one of the highest mountains in Myanmar. Men and boys are playing football, and the surrounding village is a collection of wooden stilted houses and ramshackle vegetable patches.
Although the scene seems placid, the indigenous Chin tribes who live near the mountain are upset by the government’s decision to limit their access to their lands in order to protect a national park founded in 1994.
“We lost our traditions,” said the village chief, squatting outside his hut. “And now we can’t get enough meat. When the park came we lost our way of life.”
The British made Natma Taung into a reservation in 1936, and it was established as a national park in 1994. The area is celebrated for its extraordinary biodiversity, home to an estimated 300 species of orchids alone.
But since the rededication of the park in 2010, indigenous Chin tribes, who have been living on the site for thousands of years, have been banned from hunting and cultivating their ancestral lands. Some have even been relocated.
Chin tribes hunt animals such as wild pigs, often decorating their houses with the skulls of the pigs they kill, and performing shifting cultivation on forest lands.
“They wanted us to move to Kanpetlet town [out of the protected area] in 2009-10,” the chief said. “But the land was no good, so we didn’t move.”
According to sources at NGOs operating in Myanmar, who did not want to be identified, the village is now “considered an encroacher village – a settlement that isn’t supposed to be there”.
U Shein, the park’s founder and a former assistant director of Myanmar’s Forestry Department, said one village has been successfully relocated.
Yet whether they move or not, local communities are being denied access to their ancestral lands.
Chin tribes traditionally performed shifting cultivation in the forests, but that was stopped. Locals say it is not good for them to talk about it, out of fear that the government will withdraw permission for them to remain at their current locations as punishment for talking to the press.
“Everything is OK,” said one villager. “As long as we don’t go into the forest.”
‘Encroaching’ on the land
But many still do, risking arrest and hefty fines and exasperating park authorities. “There has been no increase in biodiversity,” said U Shein, “because [local people] encroach on the land and hunt illegally”.
For their part, locals say they do not have enough land to cultivate, and that the government has not provided them with enough compensation. “The government says not to cultivate the forest,” said the village chief. “But if we don’t, we will starve.”
After the park’s rededication in 2010, the central government in Naypyidaw tried to allocate “user zones” where local communities would have permission to hunt, but that resulted in more confusion.
“Neither the park authorities nor local communities knew where they were,” said an NGO source. “So people got arrested for hunting in areas they weren’t supposed to.”
Meanwhile, the park has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. UNESCO has said that it is aware of the conflict between villagers and the government.
“It’s sometimes difficult to make locals understand how to conserve the site,” said Ohnmar Myo, national project officer at UNESCO’s Myanmar branch. “And authorities might not have the time or finances to educate them, so they deforest the site unintentionally.”
U Shein agrees that affected communities are in need of education and support. “We are applying for grants [to support] community livelihoods, outreach and awareness programmes and ecotourism, to be run by local people.”
In the meantime, Natma Taung is beset by problems that are typical of “fortress conservation”, in which people are banned from entering a protected area.
The Chin people of Natma Taung, who used to have access to 71,000 hectares of forest, suddenly found that their land was “protected” – while development projects, such as a new highway that nearly bisects the park, readied the land for an influx of tourists.
Situations like this have led to fierce debate in the conservation sphere, which is forced to grapple with how to balance the need to protect biodiversity with the rights of indigenous communities.
“It is not the indigenous people that pose any threat to biodiversity,” argues Sophie Rose Lewis, former programme associate at The Centre for People and Forests, a Thailand-based NGO. “They are the ones that have been managing the land for centuries without adversely affecting the biodiversity … the real problem is over-consumption by developed countries.”
The complexity of the Natma Taung situation can also be seen as a symptom of the rapid change that Myanmar has experienced since 2010, as it moves from a closed to an open society. Indeed, some areas of Chin State were off limits to foreigners until 2013.
“Massive land confiscations for a variety of so-called ‘development projects’ have increased since [Myanmar opened],” says Jennifer Franco from the Transnational Institute, who wrote a report on land rights in Myanmar.
Kramer told Al Jazeera “Local people … know very well what is at stake: their land and natural forests, pristine watersheds and teeming fisheries… Unfortunately, political and economic elites driving the current transition seem determined to ignore them.”
Yet according to another NGO source, there are no bad guys. The source instead blamed the lack of “any legal framework or recognition of customary tenure” before the Natma Taung protected area was established.
On the edge of Natma Taung, a player punts the football between shabby goalposts – a goal!
But the chief is unable to share in the excitement. The central government has granted his village permission to stay, for now. Yet there are still tears in his eyes and a furrow in his brow.
“According to tradition we must hunt. But if the rangers find out, it will be a big problem for us,” the village chief says.
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