Kachin News Group | 26 March 2013
As conflict raged across Kachin state, a group of Chinese investors recently bought up large amounts of farmland in the Hukaung (Hugawng) Valley and other parts of the state in order to expand rubber and cassava plantations, a leading Kachin peace activist disclosed on Monday.
Much of the land that has been purchased across Kachin state in recent months was left idle by local farmers who were forced to flee because of fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and government forces, according to a recent report in Weekly Eleven newspaper citing Kachin peace activist, Khun Jar. “When the refugees return to their homes they are unsure whether they can get their land back,” Khun Jar told Weekly Eleven.
The Kachin News Group has learned from sources in the state that much of the land transactions that have taken place recently were off the books and have yet to be publicly acknowledged by Burma's nominally civilian government. It remains unclear how much land has been taken while the fighting has been ongoing but observers estimate the land grab has been extensive and widespread.
A proposed moratorium on new investment in Kachin state which was put forward by Kachin civil society groups has been rejected by the government. The moratorium would have limited new investment in large scale projects in the state until after the fighting has completely stopped. Since June 2011 an estimated 100,000 people have been forced to flee the ongoing conflict between the KIO and Burma's nominally civilian government.
Hukaung Valley's controversial tiger reserve
The Hukaung valley once home to a vibrant ecosystem has been seriously damaged over the last few years by heavy logging, cyanide gold mining operations and large scale mono culture plantations. The fate of the valley which has seen some fighting take place over the last 21 months is a major point of concern for Kachin civil society groups. Kachin environmentalists claimed last year that the Yuzana Company drastically stepped up its ecologically destructive practices in the Hukaung Valley by expanding large scale gold mining in the environmentally sensitive area.
According to the Kachin Development Network Group (KDNG) since February 2012 Yuzana expanded gold mining operations along the Mogaung River, where the firm with the active support of local authorities confiscated and destroyed farmland belonging to villagers. The land grabs have left of hundreds of families penniless and in serious shortage of food.
The Yuzana company led by Htay Myint a close ally of retired General Than Shwe, is no stranger to controversy in the valley, where beginning in 2006 the firm with the support of Maj-Gen Ohn Myint then northern military commander, expropriated thousands of acres from small scale farmers to make way for large scale sugar cane and tapioca plantations. Htay Myint and Ohn Myint were both elected to Burma's parliament in 2010.
According to researchers studying the ongoing ecological destruction of the valley Yuzana has confiscated more than 200,000 acres of farmland from local residents since 2006 in order to make way for the firm's mega plantations.
Yuzana's massive farms employ few local people, instead using imported labor from Arakan state and the Irrawaddy delta. The migrant workers are poorly paid and are said to frequently resort to stealing livestock from their new Kachin neighbors in order to survive.
Thousands of families were left homeless by the land seizures which resulted in little to no compensation for the vast majority of those displaced. These landless farmers were instead sent to live in Sanpya Village, where few have been able to find decent paying work to support their families.
Although local people in the valley report that there are no more tigers, Burma's government and a US NGO continue to claim otherwise. In 2001, Than Shwe’s military regime in collaboration with the US NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) officially created a large tiger reserve in the Hukaung Valley. In 2004 the Burmese regime with the public endorsement of WCS extended the tiger reserve’s total area to include the entire valley of 21,890 km sq, creating what has been claimed is the largest tiger reserve in the world.
Environmentalists and critics of the Burmese government have called the tiger reserve a complete sham, they point out that since 2004 the Burmese regime has actively encouraged large scale gold mining and monoculture plantation farming to take place in in much of the valley. Recent media reports report that local farmers in the valley have not seen any tigers around for several years.
Critics argue that the tigers reserve’s key backer WCS’s former director of science and exploration, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, was incredibly naive to participate in the project from the beginning.
Rabinowitz who now works for Panthera, another intentional organization actively involved in the tiger reserve has according to his numerous critics completely ignored the concerns of the Kachin people and instead blatantly misrepresented the serious major environmental problems caused by Burmese government policy in the valley.