The 2030 Agenda: Land is central to Myanmar’s future
By Flurina Schneider, Lara M. Lundsgaard‑Hansen, Win Myint, Nwe Nwe Tun, Julie Gwendolin Zaehringer, Aung Myin Htun
In 2015, Myanmar’s political representatives endorsed the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda envisions a better future shaped by social, economic, and environmental development goals.
When striving for sustainable development, land assumes a central role. Access to land enables local communities to grow food and make a living – and many people have strong cultural and emotional bonds with “their” land. Today, however, exclusive land access is increasingly claimed by other actors – such as profit-focused companies or conservation-focused government agencies or environmental NGOs.
This is the case in Myanmar, whose forests are considered global hotspots of biodiversity. In addition, state authorities and ethnic minority groups are clashing over issues of territorial sovereignty in the resource-rich borderlands. As a result, Myanmar’s ability to advance towards a peaceful sustainable future strongly depends on whether and how these competing land claims are governed.
Given such importance of land in Myanmar, we sought to dig deeper by asking the following questions: Who currently dominates in accessing land? And how have changes in land access and land use influenced the livelihoods of villagers in rural areas? To find answers, we – a Burmese-Swiss research team – carried out a research project in Myanmar’s northern Tanintharyi Region.
We found that land use in this region changed fundamentally over the last 30 years. In the 1990s, the landscape still contained a lot of forest.
Local communities practiced shifting cultivation to produce rice and to live of forest products. Today, moving through these landscapes, one encounters many different tree plantations, including rubber or oil palm along with a mix of cashew, betel nut, and lime trees. But larger swaths of relatively undisturbed forest only remain within the boundaries of the Tanintharyi Nature Reserve – a protected area.
Over time, local villagers planted rubber and mixed-crop plantations because it helped them earn money and improve their livelihoods. But decision-making power over oil palm plantations, large rubber monocultures and the protected area ultimately was not in their hands.
Myanmar’s former military government granted oil palm concessions to crony companies, set incentives for investors to establish large-scale rubber monocultures and collaborated with international oil and gas enterprises for funding and creation of the protected area.
These developments often harmed local villagers who lost their land or forest access. Moreover, communities living within the new protected area were “illegalized” by this conservation initiative – and internally displaced persons from such communities found their land off limits upon returning home.
The eventual peace agreement and transition to a (semi-)civil government in 2011/12 gave hope to these villagers. Indeed, various windows of opportunity emerged, enabling people to reengage in economic and political activities, lead peaceful lives, and increase their well-being. But other policy developments such as the reformative Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law of 2012 raise questions about the future of sustainable development in Myanmar.
Evidence shows that profit-driven land claims and the interests of domestic and foreign investors are valued over the interests and customary land rights of local villagers.
Meanwhile, forests continue to disappear along with vital biodiversity, upsetting water flows and the microclimate. It is unclear how much longer human well-being can be improved under these conditions, or at what point trends might reverse. This is particularly relevant given increasing land scarcity and skyrocketing land prices over the past 10 years.
What do these insights suggest? We find that Myanmar must urgently foster and negotiate stronger, more inclusive arrangements of land governance on behalf of the 2030 Agenda. These arrangements must guarantee the well-being of local villagers of all ethnicities, including women – in contrast to current arrangements that clearly favour investment-strong stakeholders.
In addition, new land governance arrangements must support the diversity and continuation of fundamental ecosystem services, especially in view of alarming climate change impacts that can already be seen in Myanmar.
Finally, as the northern Tanintharyi Region remains a mixed control area, dialogues between the Myanmar government, the Karen National Union and New Mon State Party must include land use and land tenure issues in order to build durable peace.