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Villagers demand to be heard in mine development project

On World Environment day, June 4th, the community of Kyauk Kyi organized a prayer ceremony close to the site of a mining project in development. In the ceremony, they asked that their environment would be protected.

When the people of Kyauk Kyi township in Myanmar discovered that their local government had approved a mining project on 70,000 acres of their land, they decided to act together. Through creative organizing they managed to halt the project, and are now making sure the local community gets a say in the development.

“It was through learning from other communities that had been through similar experiences that we developed our strength. Our community became more confident, and started asking questions to our leaders”, said Ner Tar Lynn, Regional Coordinator of Gaia Sustainable Management Institute in Myanmar.

Although very rich in natural resources, Myanmar’s citizens are among the poorest in Asia. Through fifty years of military rule in addition to violent internal conflict, natural resources have been managed in an unsustainable, non-transparent way, enriching only a few. As the country is transitioning towards democracy and local ceasefires are signed between ethnic groups, many new areas are opened up for development and foreign investment.

Learning from others

In the Kyauk Kyi area, the people stayed afraid and insecure even after the ceasefire between local armed groups and the government in 2012. In a peacebuilding effort, GSMI organized community meetings in cooperation with Norwegian People’s Aid to build trust between soldiers and the community. At a public meeting in Kyauk Kyi, 200 people came together to learn about the peace process.

Ner Tar Lynn participated in a project where community leaders, religious leaders and government leaders went on a learning trip to the Philippines to hear about experiences with the peace process there. Through the capacity building project, the community has also learnt about natural resource management, and traveled to other communities in the region to learn from their experiences.

Surprised by mining project

Having just come back from this trip, members of the Kyauk Kyi community discovered the construction of a new road in their area. That is how they found out about the mining project in Kyauk Kyi.

“The village leader had a letter from the government approving the project, but he had not informed the people”, said Ner Tar. The group got access to the document, and secretly took photos of it. It showed that the local KNU government had applied together with a mining company to build a tin mine covering 70,000 acres of land. The leaders had not informed the local community about this application or about the approval from the regional government.

“We were very surprised”, said Ner Tar.

Together the group of villagers hired a truck to go and look at the construction road.

“When we came there, we found that there was not only a road, but offices and a dormitory. There were seven Chinese technicians living at the site, far away from the city. The construction had come further than we had thought”, said Ner Tar.

They talked to the Chinese technicians and asked them who would benefit from the project.

“They told us the government would get 20%, the armed groups in the area would get 20 %, the Chinese providing technical support would get 20% and the mining company would get 40%. We asked them: What about the community? Their answer was unclear”.

Praying for the environment

When the participants came home from this visit, they wrote about their experiences on facebook. They shared the photos of the agreement taken in secret, so a lot more people found out. They decided that something needed to be done to show their leaders they disagree with the project.

On June 4th, World Environment Day, the community decided to have a gathering by the road close to the project site. They would not call it a demonstration, because they knew that if they applied to the government to have a demonstration it would not be approved.

“We organized a prayer ceremony”, Ner Tar explains. “All the participants showed up with one stone each. With their personal prayer, they put down a stone under a large banner. There were religious leaders and people from the village, all praying together that their leaders would take care of the environment.”

Community will be consulted

The prayer ceremony reached the national news. Both the local government and the KNU were surprised that the community were showing this much resistance. The project was stopped for a while, and dialogue with the community was started.

“I recently heard that the project will be scaled down, so it will affect a smaller area. I was also told that in the further development of the project, the community will be consulted. All of this happened because the people in the area have become confident enough to fight for their rights.” said Ner Tar.

03.03.2016 | Julie Offerdal
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