A group of Kachin environmental activists and displaced Kachin farmers sent US President Barack Obama an open letter this week urging his government to cut all financial support for Kachin state's Hukaung (also Hugawng) valley tiger reserve, according to a press release issued by the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG).
The reserve was officially dubbed the world's largest protected space for tigers when it was expanded in 2004 to cover the entire valley totaling 21,890 km sq. Despite much fanfare little if any actual environmental conservation has been carried out in the ecologically sensitive valley because Burmese government policy has encouraged the Yuzana company, a firm strongly associated with Than Shwe to operate large scale gold mining and plantation projects in the reserve, says KDNG.
The US conservation group that spawned the reserve's establishment the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has chosen to placate Burma government authorities by deliberately overlooked the serious environmental damage caused by the destructive business practices of well-connected firms who operate in the valley, say the group's Kachin critics.
US government support for WCS's projects in Burma only came to light very recently but has already drawn the ire of KDNG and local residents of the valley. “American donors should be supporting projects which empower local people instead of projects shielding military cronies under the guise of environmental protection”, KDNG spokesperson Seng Mai was quoted as saying in the press release sent out on Monday to coincide with Obama's historic visit to Burma.
Since 2001 when the reserve was first established the US government's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has spent nearly $400,000 to support WCS's activities in the Hukaung valley, according to publicly available US government figures cited by KDNG. This includes a $59,077 grant from the FWS in 2010 to support WSC's “anti-poaching patrols”. According to the grant summary available on the FWS website these patrols were to be conducted in cooperation with “local communities, local authorities and plantation companies.”
Its unclear if this cooperation extended to the Yuzana corporation, the largest operator of plantations in the valley. According to researchers, since 2006 Yuzana has expropriated more than 200,000 acres of land from small scale farmers to make way for large scale sugar cane and tapioca plantations in the Hukaung valley. This has left some 600 farming families landless, directly affecting at least 10,000 villagers in the valley, according to Bawk Ja (also spelled Bauk Gyar), the famed Kachin land rights activist.
Yuzana's mega farms employ few local people, instead relying on imported labor from Arakan state and the Irrawaddy delta. The outside workers are poorly paid and are said to frequently resort to stealing livestock from their new Kachin neighbors in order to survive, say valley residents.
Yuzana and the firm's owner Htay Myint, a close ally of retired General Than Shwe, have for many years been listed on both the US and European Union Burma sanctions lists but WCS's cooperation could have been done with an unlisted subsidiarity serving as a Yuzana front company, concerned activists tell the Kachin News Group.
The only other major plantation firm operating in the valley is the National Progressive Company, a relatively unknown entity said to be owned by a close family member of a recently retired general from Burma's officially defunct military regime.
According to KDNG, since February Yuzana has increased gold mining operations along the Mogaung River, where the firm with the active support of local authorities has confiscated and destroyed more land belonging to small scale farmers. The current mining project poses further threats to the Hukaung valley, as waste produced by its cyanide intensive gold operations contaminate the local soil and the area's water sources.
According to reports from the area, local authorities have encouraged displaced farmers to make up for their loss of income by sifting through toxic mining waste. Sanpya village headman Bahkyam Naw Di is said to be charging hungry villagers for the privilege of dredging through the toxic soup left by Yuzana's large scale gold operations.
Tigers said to be completely extinct in “world's largest” tiger reserve
According to KDNG animal trackers and hunters based in the Hukaung valley have reported that they have not seen tiger paw prints or other signs of tiger life several years. The massive environmental change that has taken place in the Hukaung valley over the past decade at the hands of the Yuzana is widely believed by local valley residents to be the cause of the steep decline in the local tiger population.
Further complicating matters some displaced farmers took to hunting tigers and other endangered species as a means of survival in the years after Yuzana took control of their farms. Other than camouflaging the awful environmental track record of Burma's central government the tiger reserve has been a complete failure says KDNG. A view shared by local valley residents who tell the Kachin News Group that the tiger reserve is a “fraud”. They argue that the tigers reserve’s key backer WCS’s former director of science and exploration, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz was at best very naive to participate in the project.
Rabinowitz dubbed the “Indiana Jones” of the tiger world, now works for Panthera, another US based organization actively involved in the tiger reserve. According to his numerous critics Rabinowitz has completely ignored the concerns of the Kachin people and instead misrepresented the serious major environmental problems caused by Burmese government policy in the valley.
An interview Rabinowitz gave with Agence France Press (AFP) in June infuriated Kachin environmentalists because what they say was a deliberate misrepresentation of facts about the tigers decline. Rabinowitz summed up the situation in the Hugawng valley as follows "The tiger is still valuable and the indigenous people there such as the Lisu and the Kachin are very much tied into the Chinese trade, and they've been killing off tigers".
But it was his next claim that really upset Kachin activists, "You need law enforcement, protection and guards -- that's the number one thing," he told AFP.
The Kachin activists say that if Rabinowitz really cared about the tigers he would be calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin state during this time of war rather than demanding that representatives of one of the world's most discredited police forces be sent to the area.
The comments were also seen by many of Rabinowitz's critics to be in extremely poor taste as armed clashes between Burma's military and forces loyal to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) have taken place in the Hukaung valley with alarming regularity since a 17 year ceasefire ended between both sides in June 2011.