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Environmental Peacebuilding in Myanmar

In the next installment of our 'FIVE lessons from my thesis' series, Johanna Garnett - who is doing a PhD in peace at University of New England - talks about environmental peace building.

The Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED) is educating young adults from various ethnic groups and geographical regions in Myanmar in alternative development practives. The participants at the centre of my study are the 25 students who undertook NEED’s first 10 month residential program 2013-2014.

1. The state in Myanmar is adopting an industrialised development strategy. My PhD research focuses on NEED, as a grass roots environmental organisation in Myanmar that is focusing on raising awareness of the ecological violence – environmental devastation - that is inherent in the processes of industrialised modernisation.

2. I have been astonished at the passion, dedication and humour of the participants, and amazed at how much they are able to achieve considering their socio-economic position in Myanmar society. Their strength appears to lie in their communitarianism – close connection to their traditional communities, cultures and natural environment, and sense of duty/responsibility.

3. The participants possess an incredible wealth of knowledge about their local environment and cultural practices – base line data and oral histories that could be tapped by development organisations. The young adults that I met in Myanmar give me great hope for the future of their country.

They are keen to take advantage of the new political space and opportunities for education and employment but the vast majority are still frustrated by lack of material resources and investment in public infrastructure.

Part of my thesis was that Buddhism would be positively correlated to a high degree of environmental concern and conservation but I have not found this to be true. I suppose I underestimated the instrumental value placed on natural resources in Myanmar and the daily practices of agrarian populations in simply meeting their basic needs.

4. By focusing on small-scale and local projects permaculture – a regenerative, organic agricultural system - provides opportunities for marginalized communities to not only become more self-sufficient with regards to meeting their basic needs but to flourish.

Those involved with NEED are taking ownership of the development process in Myanmar and are attempting to regenerate a traditional culture of sustainability and simplicity. NEED has created a learning community and students leave the NEED eco-farm armed with raised ecological awareness, new knowledge and practical skills aimed at putting theory into practice.

5. Through addressing ecological violence NEED is involved in 'environmental peacemaking'. Environmental peacemaking stems from the new environmental and peace movements of the 1970s in the West/North. Now, collaboration between the grass roots from the North and South, from those who seek to address the environmental insecurities and injustices, is resulting in a global eco-culture movement.

The strength of the NEED program lies in its deep understanding of the local context and its engagement with local cultural practices. NEED’s alternative development practices more accurately reflect the needs, goals, and aspirations of local actors, and thus increase the legitimacy and potentiality of peacebuilding processes. This participatory, grass roots collaboration is vital for an enduring peace in Myanmar - one grounded in a peaceful relationship with the natural environment.

Johanna has several publications on related topics which can be accessed through Google Scholar.

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