A bitter land struggle is unfolding in northern Burma’s remote Hugawng Valley. Farmers that have been living for generations in the valley are defying one of the country’s most powerful tycoons as his company establishes massive mono-crop plantations in what happens to be the world’s largest tiger reserve.
The Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve in Kachin State was declared by the Myanmar* Government in 2001 with the support of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2004 the reserve’s designation was expanded to include the entire valley of 21,890 square kilometers (8,452 square miles), making it the largest tiger reserve in the world.
Today a 200,000 acre mono-crop plantation project is making a mockery of the reserve’s protected status. Fleets of tractors, backhoes, and bulldozers rip up forests, raze bamboo groves and flatten existing small farms. Signboards that mark animal corridors and “no hunting zones” stand out starkly against a now barren landscape; they are all that is left of conservation efforts. Application of chemical fertilizers and herbicides together with the daily toil of over two thousand imported workers are transforming the area into huge tapioca, sugar cane, and jatropha plantations.
In 2006 Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s ruling despot, granted the Rangoon-based Yuzana Company license to develop this “agricultural development zone” in the tiger reserve. Yuzana Company is one of Burma’s largest businesses and is chaired by U Htay Myint, a prominent real estate tycoon who has close connections with the junta.
Local villagers tending small scale farms in the valley since before it was declared a reserve have seen their crops destroyed and their lands confiscated. Confl icts between Yuzana Company employees, local authorities, and local residents have fl ared up and turned violent several times over the past few years, culminating with an attack on residents of Ban Kawk village in 2010. As of February 2010, 163 families had been forced into a relocation site where there is little water and few finished homes. Since then, through further threats and intimidation, others families have been forced to take “compensation funds” which are insufficient to begin a new life and leave them destitute.
Despite the powerful interests behind the Yuzana project, villagers have been bravely standing up to protect their farmlands and livelihoods.
They have sent numerous formal appeals to the authorities, conducted prayer ceremonies, tried to reclaim their fi elds, refused to move, and defended their homes.
The failure of various government offi cials to reply to or resolve the problem fi nally led the villagers to reach out to the United Nations and the National League for Democracy in Burma. In March 2010 representatives of three villages fi led written requests to the International Labor Organization to investigate the actions of Yuzana. In July 2010, over 100 farmers opened a joint court case in Kachin State.
Although the villagers in Yuzana’s project area have been ignored at every turn, they remain determined to seek a just solution to the problems in Hugawng. As Burma’s military rulers prepare for their 2010 “election,” local residents hold no hope for change from a new constitution that only legalizes the status quo and the military’s placement above the law. Companies such as Yuzana that have close military connections are set to play an increasing role in the economy and will also remain above the law. The residents of Hugawng Valley are thus at the frontline of protecting not only their own lands and environment but also the rights
of all of Burma’s farmers.
The Kachin Development Networking Group stands firmly with these communities and therefore calls on Yuzana to stop their project implementation to avoid any further citizens’ rights abuses and calls on all Kachin communities and leaders to work together with Hugawng villagers in their brave struggle.
* The current military regime changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989Kachin Development Networking Group, Kachin State