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The people of Karen State have traditionally lived in areas rich in biodiversity, with fertile soil, lush forests, valuable mineral resources, and rivers that have been the lifeblood of Karen communities. However, more than 60 years of civil war have left Karen State one of the most impoverished regions in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced into refugee camps in Thailand or makeshift camps in Burma for internally displaced people (IDPs). In addition, a decades- long campaign by the military government to sell off the state’s abundant natural resources to the highest bidder has degraded and destroyed local environments, communities and ecologies, as well as further displacing residents and reducing the ability of locals to continue living their traditional subsistence lifestyle.
The Community Based Livelihoods Initiative (CBLI) and IDP Livelihood Restoration program represents the main pillar of KESAN’s community development work, allowing KESAN to build up a relationship of trust with villagers and to keep a close eye on the situation on the ground in Karen State. All livelihood initiatives link with the social-economic development of Karen communities and aim to contribute to the reduction of poverty in Karen State. This program aims to support small-scale local interventions to:
- strengthened local livelihood security,
- preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge,
- conservation of local biodiversity,
- empowerment of women, and
enhanced local coping and adaption mechanisms against natural and human-caused disasters.
Activities supported and implemented under this program include: restoration of irrigation canals & abandoned rice terraces, rice banks, supporting traditional medicine production & clinics, strengthen community leadership and evaluation capacity, support for women’s fuel efficient stove-making, traditional weaving and sewing skills sharing, tea production, seed sharing.
KESAN works on land and natural resource issues in collaboration with the Karen National Union’s (KNU) Karen Agriculture Department (KAD) and Karen Forestry Department (KFD). This work informs, encourages and empowers local community members and officials in securing rights to their lands, in managing and developing their land and natural resources, and in developing and implementing the KNU’s land, agriculture and forest policies.
Under this program, KESAN provides trainings on land & forest policies, community forestry, sustainable natural resource management principles, land demarcation with GPS and GIS mapping, and data management. These trainings and capacity building are crucial for the demarcation and titling of land and forest in Karen State.
Threats to land tenure security have intensified since the 2012 ceasefire, along with a mushrooming of investment in land-based industries such as logging, mining, and plantation agriculture. The need to document and register the lands of Karen communities to assist them in defending their lands against confiscation and destruction is felt more than ever.
KESAN’s water governance work aims to empower vulnerable communities to advocate for the good governance of water resources – with a focus on the Salween River. The longest free- flowing river in Southeast Asia, the Salween supports incredible biodiversity, and also the livelihoods of the Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan peoples in Burma. However, the Salween’s health is threatened by secretive plans to build a cascade of five large hydroelectric dams in order to generate electricity for China and Thailand. Local people in the Salween Basin are overwhelmingly opposed to the dam plans, which would devastate their culture and livelihoods. Not only are these dams moving forward without proper scientific study, information transparency, or consent from local communities – but they are major drivers of violent conflict and human rights violations in ethnic areas. With our partners, KESAN works to support local communities call for “No Salween Dams” by:
- Raising awareness and building capacity among affected communities through informational workshops, skills trainings, and educational materials such as documentary films.
- Facilitating grassroots research on the biodiversity of the Salween basin and the impacts of dam construction.
- Advocating for a dam-free Salween by producing campaign materials, gathering petition signatures, effectively engaging with the media, and lobbying elected and company officials.
- Networking between civil society organizations by coordinating meetings, conferences, and collaborative actions.
- Mobilizing the local, regional, and international community through public demonstrations.
KESAN’s water governance work over the past year has greatly built up the relationship between ethnic activists and the more mainstream civil society groups working in central Burma. We have been able to build trust at a personal and organizational level that has resulted in KESAN becoming allies with experts in renewable energy who have the ear of government and international institutions. This has increased KESAN’s ability to make stopping the Salween Dams an issue of national importance throughout Burma. Our Salween activism over the past decades has been a major success – the Salween remains dam-free – though investors are now trying to move forward.
The Environmental Education program aims to develop and provide environmental education services and materials to increase the environmental awareness of children, youth, community members, and leaders, and to increase their participation in mitigation and adaptation measures both inside Burma’s Karen State and along the border. KESAN delivers outreach environmental trainings on request, disseminates environment education materials, and is working with the Karen educational system to integrate environment issues into school curriculum.
Though it is difficult to measure the ultimate effects environmental education over the short term, since KESAN’s founding this program has been successfully cultivating an environmental vision and building capacity for tomorrow’s Karen leaders. These educational activities have been crucial to restoring hope and empowering Karen people in an area where civil war and state discrimination has left many without opportunities for formal education. Now, as limited reforms and the fragile peace allow the Karen education system to expand and thrive, there are new opportunities to make environmental awareness a cornerstone of the Karen youth experience.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified Burma as a global biodiversity hotspot, and the forests of Karen State hold local, national, regional, and global significance for conservation. Some Karen areas still support wild elephant, tiger, bear, clouded leopard, banteng, guar, and other rare and endangered species. In addition, the forests of Karen State have long been a refuge for Karen villagers throughout the civil war, providing a place to hide, and a source of food and medicine for survival. However, the forests are under increasing threat from commercial interests, as logging, mining, and agri-business development extend their reach into previously undisturbed Karen areas.
KESAN works with Karen forestry officials, local Karen communities, and conservation biologists from five conservation organizations – People Resources and Conservation Foundation, Wildlife One, Wildlife Asia, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Gibbon Conservation Alliance – to identify, study, conserve and manage the extraordinary biodiversity of Karen State. We identify high value areas and species, demarcate wildlife sanctuaries, train local forest stewards, and conduct research on the effective protection of forest biodiversity in combination with supporting local community livelihoods.
KESAN practices community-based conservation that combines scientific expertise with local indigenous knowledge, which remains strong in rural Karen communities who have lived with and depended on the forest for generations. Since KESAN is a grassroots organization representing Karen communities, we stress local community empowerment and involvement in all our conservation initiatives. KESAN believes that the promotion and preservation of indigenous knowledge is a vital part of maintaining traditional Karen culture and identity, in addition to conserving the biodiversity of Karen territories.
KESAN supports and participates in networks both inside and outside Burma, advocating to defend human rights and protect the environment through lobbying, public demonstration, and media engagement. Our advocacy work is focused on environmental policymaking, peacebuilding, natural resource governance, and responsible investment. We have been active in various new initiatives in Burma, including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), Land in our Hands Network (LIOH).
Alongside our advocacy work, we strive to keep the public – including urban residents, remote villagers, and displaced populations – informed about the status and impacts of mega- development projects, and the benefits of alternative, sustainable development. KESAN achieves this by producing print and audio materials, collaborating with academics, and working with the media. The recent explosion of new media outlets operating inside Burma has brought an incredible opportunity to inform a knowledge-hungry public about destructive development projects that are usually kept hidden from public scrutiny.
The Salween Peace Park project is a vision for the creation a space that promotes peace, cooperation, cultural preservation, and environmental and natural resources conservation through a bottom-up, people-centred approach. The overall shape and internal activities of the Salween Peace Park are informed by a wide range of stakeholders, but will evolve organically through collaborative research and deliberation.
The long-term aim for the Salween Peace Park is to demonstrate what truly good governance could be for the Salween River Basin, and provide a people-centered alternative to the top-down, militarized development that has been pushed in the region by previous regimes. The project also aims to expand the conversation around “governance” in Burma beyond mere management of resources, but to address issues of militarization, conflict, displacement, resource capture, and destructive development, and through this contribute to conflict transformation. Likewise, it expands the concept of “Water Governance” beyond just the water in the river itself, to include the land, forest, bio-diversity, upland shifting cultivation, customary land systems, and cultural and sacred sites along the Salween River Basin.