Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Thursday, 24 April 2008 15:54 UK

Burmese farmers face flood threat

By Nessa Tierney
One Planet, BBC World Service

Boat travelling along a river (Image: BBC)
The Salween River is a lifeline for farmers and traders

With dense green forests on both banks, and a clear blue sky overhead, the Salween River is peaceful when the motor of our long, narrow boat is switched off.

This river is the main artery of Karen State in eastern Burma, and an almost completely unspoilt, incredibly biodiverse environment.

We see little traffic on our journey; a couple of other wooden boats carrying goods, and one with a cargo of buffalo that my guide says are being smuggled from deep inside Burma for sale in Thailand.

The peace, however, is deceptive, as this area is essentially a war zone.

If there are no forests, there will be no Karen
Paul, Karen environmentalist

I have crossed into Burma illegally from Thailand because the repressive Burmese regime does not grant visas to foreign journalists.

The authorities certainly do not want the outside world to have access to Karen State, a division of Burma that borders Thailand.

Nature's role

The Karen opposition forces have been fighting for self-determination against the government for almost 60 years.

They have few areas of control left; the Burmese military regularly launch attacks on villages in an attempt to force people to relocate to Burmese-controlled areas.

Estimates say hundreds of thousands of Karen have been displaced. Many hide in the jungle; up to 200,000 have made their way across the border to refugee camps in Thailand.

Others find relative and temporary safety in camps in Karen State set up by the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the opposition.

Father and daughter washing (Image: BBC)
Over the years, thousands of people have been forced from their homes

These displaced people bring reports of human rights abuses by the Burmese army: rape, torture and forced labour.

I met Paw Wah in a refugee camp beside the Salween River.

"They tied my husband to a tree, with a rope," she told me, "then they beat him. He is still vomiting blood.

"They said he was helping the KNU soldiers, but this wasn't true".

The area's natural environment plays an important role in the conflict. The Karen have a unique way of managing their resources, especially their forests.

They practise a form of rotational farming which involves burning areas of forest for planting. They hunt wild animals and gather plants for food and medicine.

Strong as a tree

Spiritual beliefs often have a strong link to sustainable land management.

When a Karen baby is born, the umbilical cord is hung on a tree in an area of sacred forest.

They believe that not only will the child grow up to be strong like the tree, but will always protect his or her own tree.

Buffalo (Image: BBC)
Karen farmers fear generations of knowledge could be lost

Large-scale logging by the Burmese government, and in the past by the Karen leadership when they controlled more of the state, has damaged some parts of the forests.

However, the indigenous conservation knowledge of the Karen people has helped to preserve much of it intact.

But as huge numbers become displaced and insecure, the knowledge and the will to protect this pristine ecosystem are being eroded.

As villagers flee to relatively safe areas controlled by the KNU, these areas become too crowded, and the carefully balanced farming practices are abandoned.

Local environmental groups like the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), which is based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, take great risks going deep inside Karen State to work with villagers, helping them retain their indigenous knowledge.

KESAN director Paul argues that protecting resources is crucial for the survival of the Karen.

He adds that they can't wait for the civil war to end before taking action: "If there are no forests, there will be no Karen."

Foreign interests

The forests are the only valuable natural resource here.

Gas and mineral deposits have also been exploited by the Burmese authorities in the past.

Such projects have been controversial because of allegations of forced labour and other abuses.

Currently, the "500lb gorilla in the room", as Thailand-based environmentalist Jeff Rutherford describes it, is the plan to build four hydropower dams on the Salween River, three of which will be on the stretch of the river that runs through Karen State.

They are being built with funding from the Thai State Electricity company (EGAT), along with the Burmese government and with investment from China.

Although very little has been said publicly about the plans, it is understood that most the electricity produced will be sold to Thailand.

River Salween (Image: BBC)
Plans to build hydroelectric dams could change the landscape forever

Local human rights and environmental groups are campaigning against the building of the dams. They say this kind of large-scale development project leads to increased militarisation, and the human rights abuses that follow.

From an environmental perspective, local experts say the loss would be considerable.

"They are talking about building, between what they are doing in China and in Burma, the biggest hydroelectric complex on Earth, in a biodiversity Garden of Eden," Jeff Rutherford says.

The problem for campaigners is how to mobilise local people to oppose the dams, given the insecurity in which they live.

Paul from KESAN told me: "People started to ask, 'OK, what can we do because we have no power?'"

He says that although his group has no power either, they can at least voice the concerns of local people.

You can listen again to this programme, or download it as a podcast, by visiting the BBC World Service's One Planet website


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