Myanmar parks could stop thousands of Karen refugees returning home

PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Plans to protect swathes of mountainous jungle in Myanmar could prevent refugees from returning and uproot 16,000 people living within the proposed boundaries of two parks, campaigners said.

The parks, totaling 1.3 million acres (5,260 square km), could threaten livelihoods in 55 indigenous villages in the Tanintharyi Region, according to a report by the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT), an advocacy group.

It said the proposals - which have been demarcated after being proposed in 2002 - should be halted until refugees’ right of return was guaranteed.

“Indigenous communities must be properly consulted ... and must be able to lead and actively participate in the planning and implementation of conservation activities,” the report said.

A Myanmar official said those fears were unfounded and the rights of any people living in the area, including returning refugees, would be protected.

“We need to negotiate with local communities to get the approval from those who live inside the park area,” said Win Naing Tha, director of the forests department, by phone.

The Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group, signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in 2012 after 62 years of conflict, which led some refugees to return home - although ethnic armed groups continue to fight in other areas.

About 100,000 refugees remain in camps across the border in Thailand, according to the United Nations refugee agency, while others sheltered within Myanmar after fleeing their homes.

The CAT said plans for Tanintharyi National Park and nearby Lenya National Park pose a threat to people who traditionally lived within the proposed boundaries.

Those fears are partly based on the impact of another protected area in the region - the Tanintharyi Nature Reserve Project, which was established in 2005.

When residents of Kye Zu Daw village returned to homes they had fled during the war, said the CAT, they found their land had been split between the reserve and a palm oil plantation.

The CAT said villagers were no longer able make a living by farming the narrow strip of land that was left, with efforts to cultivate areas on either side resulting in court cases.

“If we go into our forest, the government will sue us. If we go into the lower part of the village, the company will sue us,” Saw Chit Wey Htoo, a villager, was quoted as telling CAT.

Frank Momberg of the British conservation group Flora & Fauna International said his organization backed away from promoting the proposed parks three years ago, after consulting local organizations and the KNU.

“We have changed our strategy to community based conservation,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.