In defiance against Burma’s ruling military junta, farmers in the northern state of Kachin are fighting against a plantation company from destroying their lands and livelihoods.
The farmers accuse the Yuzana Company of large-scale destruction of forest in the Hugawng Valley, an area that also happens to comprise the world’s largest tiger reserve.
The Yuzana Company conglomerate, whose chief Htay Myint is said to be close to the Burmese military rulers, was given the license to operate plantations in the Hukawng Valley in 2007.
Since 2007, Yuzana Company has been relocating entire villages, destroying crops and confiscating farmlands to prepare about 200,000 acres of land (in the total about 5.4 million acre valley) for the planting of sugarcane, jatropha and cassava to produce agrofuels.
The project is given security by 200 soldiers from Infantry Battalion 297 based in the area as well as private militia.
Despite threats and intimidation from the powerful interests behind the project, the seven villages in the project area have bravely resisted the loss of their lands and homes to the company.
Villagers from Ban Kawk and Warazup have driven away the company bulldozers, pulled out tapioca seedlings and refused to relocate from their homes.
Farmers have filed written complaints to authorities and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) after the removals started.
In June 2007, the Hugawng Valley Farmer Social Committee sent a letter of appeal signed by about 800 farmers protesting land conﬁscation in Hugawng Valley to Senior General Than Shwe urging him to stop the project.
As their demands continued to be ignored, the villagers then requested the National League for Democracy, Burma's main opposition party, to file a court case against the Yuzana Company for abuse of citizen’s rights.
Following the farmers’ petition, the Kachin Supreme Court in Myitkina opened a case on behalf of 148 farmers in July 2010.
The Kachin News Group reported last year that the company has built around 100,000 houses in the valley for men and women working on the plantations. Farmers state that Yuzana has confiscated land in seven villages in the region and compensated only 80,000 kyat (US$80) for an acre of land normally valued at 300,000 kyat (US$300).
The Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a Kachin environmental group, recently released a report titled "Tyrants, Tycoons and Tigers" describing the operations of the Yuzana Company in the Hugawng Valley.
The report states that the company has already forcibly moved more than 160 families. The company reportedly used herbicide to kill the forest undergrowth and then cleared the ground with fleets of bulldozers and excavators leaving large swathes of denuded land. Then the company used excavators to dig out canals between the blocks. Local residents have reported a decrease in wild animal sightings and that livestock have gotten trapped in the canals and died.
Hugawng Valley is located in the western part of Kachin State near the Indian border, between the Kumon Mountain range to the east and the Patkai Mountains to the west.
The Patkai range includes headwaters for the Chindwin and Brahmaputra Rivers, while the Kumon Mountains contain the headwaters of Danai, Tawang and Tarung Rivers, which together form the headstreams of the Chindwin.
The catchments ﬂow into the plains of the Hugawng Valley where they combine to form the largest tributary of the Chindwin – the Danai River.
The entire valley comes under the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve created in 2001 with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
About 50 tigers are said to inhabit the valley that is also home to a number of other rare or endangered animals, including leopards, Himalayan bears and elephants.
Based in New York City, the WCS in 1993 became the first conservation group to initiate a program inside Burma with its primary aims to work closely with the Burmese military regime (specifically the Ministry of Forestry), increase the number of protected areas and engage in wildlife protection.
In 2001, the Myanmar government designated 2,500 square miles of the Hukaung Valley as a wildlife sanctuary, based on the first ever biological expedition of the area in 1999 led by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, currently CEO of the wild cat conservation group Panthera, staff from the Myamnar Forest Department and the WCS’s Myanmar Program.
In 2004, the area was expanded by a further 4,248 square miles leading to Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society announcing it as “the world's largest tiger reserve.” In August 2010, in a WCS press release officially announcing the expansion, Rabinowitz said, “I have dreamt of this day for many years. The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer.”
The reserve now covers almost the entire Hugawng Valley, creating the world’s largest tiger conservation area and one of the world’s largest protected forest areas. The Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve adjoins other wildlife conservation parks in northwest Kachin State to form the huge “Northern Forest Complex.
No responses were available from Rabinowitz or staff of Panthera and WCS to emails concerning the threats to the valley tigers at the time of writing this article.
Burma’s regime recently outlined a National Tiger Plan to double the country’s tiger population by 2022. The plan is to be submitted at the Global Tiger Summit in Russia’s St. Petersburg in end 2010.
In March 2008 BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations, reported on Yuzana Company's encroachment stating that a strip of forest up to 1.5mile-wide that ran for 50 miles had been almost completely felled and re-planted with sugar cane and jatropha plantations.
The authors of the report said: “As of February 2010 [we] were unable to see any remaining forests in animal corridor areas [within the agricultural zone]. Only the signboards of the forest department and the Wildlife Conservation Society were left standing.”
The Valley protected area is also being threatened by gold mining projects operated by Chinese and local businessmen having links to the military.
The majority of the about 50,000 people currently in the Hugawng Valley are Kachin, with other ethnic minorities also represented such as Naga and Shan. The ethnic peoples are closely dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods and cultural practices.
In collaboration with international conservation groups such as the WCS, the authorities have forbidden hunting and rotational cultivation by local villagers living within the reserve, and have conﬁscated all guns. This has had serious impacts on local traditional livelihoods and food security.
In the making of the tiger reserve, the valley peoples were not allowed any rights to participate in the decision-making process regarding development and conservation occurring on their own land.
Now they are fighting not only to reclaim their confiscated farmlands, paddy fields, forests and housing but also to save the valley home of the tigers.
Amraapali N is a pen name for an environmental journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand.
(Article previously published in the Bangkok Post on 5 September)