Paul Sein Twa was born in a small and peaceful village along the estuary of Salween river, surrounded by lush forest and streams in Myanmar’s Karen State, which is also a hotbed of illegal log trade, driven by surging commercial interest and demand for timber. At the age of nine, however, he was forced to flee his village because of the civil war between the Karen National Union and the Burmese government army. He ended up growing up in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. After witnessing how excessive logging and agribusinesses destroyed his homeland, the indigenous activist decided to start a grassroots movement dedicated to improving the livelihood security and to deal with the challenges and threats to Karen cultures and autonomy in the Karen state of Myanmar, an area where bears harrowing witness to the 70-year fight for autonomy of the Karen people.
Sein Twa established Salween Peace Park in 2018, which, located on the country’s eastern frontier bordering Thailand, spans across 5,485 square kilometers (1.4 million acres) of the Salween River Basin. He recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize 2020 for Asia, dubbed the “Green Nobel Prize”, in recognition of his efforts to conserve the natural habitat and push for political change.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
KrAsia (Kr): As the Founder of Salween Peace Park, what does nature mean to you, and what did your childhood look like?
Paul Sein Twa: I grew up along the Salween River. When I was around nine to ten years old, I had to flee my own village due to the Civil War and conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) and Burmese Government. And then in 1989 and the early 1990s, the Burmese government had granted many logging concessions to Thai companies, especially along the Salween River, which caused flooding and many landslides in 1992. Also, I am an indigenous person, and our people have a very close relationship with nature and our environment. And the teaching we always had to follow was to take care of our nature. Our main principle is to live together in harmony with our environment.
Kr: Through witnessing all these changes that have happened to your homeland over the years, what was your mission when starting Salween Peace Park?
Paul Sein Twa: In the early 2000s, the government had plans to develop a cascade of hydropower dams on the Salween River, which would flood our territory. This was a big threat to our survival as indigenous people, as we could be displaced from our territory forever. In 2012, when the KNU and the Burmese government signed a ceasefire agreement and initiated the peace process, we saw opportunities for us to voice our concerns about the conflict and as well as our vision for a sustainable future. Hence, we knew we needed to scale up our environmental programs. We looked at other countries like Thailand, saw the way they protected areas like the National Park was very centralized and in the hands of the government, which caused problems for indigenous people living in the park, because their rights were restricted.
Hence, we wanted to make our conserved area differently. We also learned from other countries’ indigenous people who established their own conserved areas, like the ICCA Consortium. We started opening up more spaces, and channels for the community to engage. No matter which sector they are coming from, be it conservation, community development, or conflict and peace, they are all gathering together to engage through our channels. Hence, we developed this Peace Park to cover all these sectors in a more integrated way.
Kr: What would you say are the most challenging parts in the process of building the Salween Peace Park?
Paul Sein Twa: As our territory has been under armed conflict for about six to seven decades, militarization and displacement are the major challenges. When we organize consultations, we have to travel and reach out to local communities, as well as bring local communities to a certain place. And because the army camps are located in our territory, it is quite difficult to travel sometimes. The displacement of indigenous people is another big challenge. Another challenge is the lack of a legal framework to guarantee the rights of the indigenous people, especially the rights to land and natural resources. Hence, we focus on using international frameworks, for example, The Right to Free and Proud Informed Consent, That’s what we’ve been doing so far.
Kr: I’ve heard of the ‘kaw’ concept you’ve talked about. Can you explain a little bit more about this?
Paul Sein Twa: Kaw is our ancestral domain and territory. Our indigenous people also manage our territory’s customary land, so everything is within the kaw system. It is a deep relationship with nature, and we have to practice certain traditions, which will result in the maintenance of a healthy environment, forests, and biodiversity. Another important element of the kaw is that it defines the ancestral and ceremonial boundaries. So, I am only allowed to perform our ceremonial offerings within this territory, and cannot go and perform it in another territory because it will breach the law of the guardian spirit in another land, and they will punish me. So overall, kaw is an integrated system that enforces environmental conservation into our culture, spirituality, and also our way of life.
Kr: I think this whole concept of animism is really interesting. But there are quite a lot of Buddhists in Myanmar, as well as some Christians. How do these different people reach a common consensus even though they have different faiths?
Paul Sein Twa: You raise a very good question. After many decades of civil war, we lost many things, including our culture in some communities, and then it also forced people to convert to other religions like Christianity and Buddhism. In animism, you need to have everything in a very balanced way, and you have to do exactly what you have been told, or you will face consequences. Hence, people tend to convert to Buddhism because it’s similar to animism, and it’s easier. But when we talked about our vision to restore our culture and indigenous practices, the people were really interested. They know that if there is no program to preserve this, in the next 10 to 20 years, we will lose so much of our indigenous knowledge and practices. Hence, it is quite easy to bring people together, because we as indigenous people share this culture and also share the same vision for our future.
Kr: How has COVID-19 affected the lives of people living in the Salween Peace Park?
Paul Sein Twa: Surprisingly, our people in the Salween Peace Park have no big issues currently, as we have a good forest and environment and most of our territories are kind of remote. During the COVID-19 outbreak we locked down the village and forbade travel, and so far, we haven’t seen any reported cases in our community. This is a huge blessing, as we don’t have good access to hospitals and services in our territory. There are some communities who live along the borders that are affected, as they depend on the local trade between Myanmar and Thailand, and the Thais are worried that people crossing from Yamasa will spread more COVID cases to Thailand.
Kr: My last question is, what advice do you have for the environmental activists all over the world that are still fighting for the autonomy of their land and conserving their heritage?
Paul Sein Twa: I think that environmentalists and the indigenous peoples’ rights defenders know what they have to do, and the challenges and threats that we are facing today very well. We need to really mobilize our communities, document our people’s knowledge and ancestral territories to show to the world that we can manage and take care of our territories in a way that is in line with our cultural and our traditional knowledge.
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