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Myanmar's ethnic communities opposing a coal plant see their fight get harder

Myanmar’s Indigenous people have faced the loss of their lands, community forests, and deteriorating health conditions due to illegal logging and mining. But in the face of political turmoil, environmental activists are fearful of arrests.

Almost two decades ago, Myanmar’s largest coal-fired power plant was built as a joint venture by a group of military-affiliated businessmen and the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation. Since then, it has disrupted the socioeconomic lives of the Pa’O and Taungyo people who are Indigenous to the area, as well as Shan and Bamar people, who have joined them in protests against the operation of the plant.

For many, the undertaking symbolises the way business is done by Myanmar’s generals. Over the years, the inhabitants of the area have reported health problems as well as the loss of underground water sources, and cases of land collapse and damage to housing. As a result of the political turmoil that continues in Myanmar following the military power grab of Feb. 1 this year, people have reported illegal mining on their land in the absence of law enforcement.

The construction of the Tigyit power plant and the adjacent coal mine in Pinlaung township in southern Shan state, on the orders of Senior General Than Shwe, has meant the loss of farmland and community forests for the communities.

Pinlaung township has seen the worst deforestation rate in southern Shan, despite calls for the shutdown of the site and the restitution of the lands and reforestation becoming louder under civilian rule between 2015 and 2020.

Unlike the northern and eastern regions of Shan that border China’s Yunnan province, southern Shan has remained relatively free from monoculture cultivation. However, experts say that infrastructure projects linking the country’s heartland with the ethnic minority-dominated borderlands have facilitated the penetration of forests by offenders.

“Illegal logging in the Pinlaung area has increased considerably [in recent years],” said Ko Moe, a forest department official in the Shan town of Kalaw. “Only in the most vulnerable places, we had been able to install camera traps.

“Our biggest priority is the protected area, and we have only limited resources,” he added. “In January 2021 [shortly before the coup], we captured 800 tonnes of logs.”

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, the successes of the forest department officers in containing illegal logging will be exploited by the military junta to fund its persecution of civilians. In total, 200,000 tonnes of illegal timber seized under the previous government will be auctioned for cash, which the junta needs following the economic fallout as a result of international sanctions and boycotts.

Following the destruction of the forest, the area around Tigyit was rebranded as “urban” and so is not protected by the authorities. “We can’t reverse the process — every year we give local people around 10,000 seedlings to plant on their own land,” Ko Moe said.

Urbanisation and population growth

Not everyone is satisfied with the reforestation actions conducted by the forest department.

“Among the trees, there are species which are not endemic to the area, namely pine, cherry and eucalyptus,” said Ye Win Myint, a member of Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), a national network monitors pollution in Tigyit. “Also, many trees do not survive the hot season due to water shortages,” he added.

“If we establish more community forests, there will be less land to cultivate,” said Si Htet Aung, a forest department official based in the township of Nyaungshwe. “The main problems are urbanisation and the growing population nationwide.”

Due to pollution, the crops of the farmers could not grow or had an unappealing taste. Farmers have resorted to buying chemical fertilisers … otherwise they would not sell anything.

Khun Oo, chairman, Pa’O Youth Organization

The work of forest rangers is essential in protecting the hills from deforestation. But after the coup, a number of workers went on strike in response to a call to form a civil disobedience movement.

Before the coup, local communities had been appealing to the government to examine the pollution from the power plant and the adjacent coal mine, but the authorities’ actions focused on curbing the practice of slash-and-burn farming in the hill areas.

“I don’t think the impact of the power plant on the environment and human health is significant,” Khant Min Thant of the Nyaungshwe Agriculture Department told Mongabay.

Forest department officials have focused on the detrimental effects of shifting cultivation, which was broadly practiced in the past, as a key factor causing soil erosion and sinkholes. “Almost everyone changed to other forms of agriculture; we have supported the Indigenous farmers with money, training and seedlings to abandon this,” Khant Min Thant said.

“The shifting cultivation of the past continues to affect the quality of the product today,” he added. “We studied that area for mining and recommended the owner of the plant to do proper conservation.”

‘Miscarriages, cancers and other serious diseases’

For Khun Oo, the chairman of the Pa’O Youth Organization, based in Taunggyi, the state’s capital, the effects of the pollution on the agriculture produce are significant. “Due to pollution, the crops of the farmers could not grow or had an unappealing taste. Farmers have resorted to buying chemical fertilisers … otherwise they would not sell anything,” he said.

“Air and water pollution remains very bad, particularly in the hot season,” he added.

The communities’ fears were confirmed by a 2019 report prepared by MATA jointly with Greenpeace and the Waterkeeper Alliance that examined the environmental and health impact of the power plant on the Tigyit residents.

According to the report, the 2018 refurbishment of the plant did not stop pollutants from leaking out of the site. “There have been continued reports of miscarriages, cancers and other serious diseases,” Khun Oo said. Many women are, however, ashamed of speaking of their health problems, as miscarriages can lead to a stigma in their communities.

The authorities, however, have yet to investigate the claims about the contamination of food crops around Tigyit, although “toxic metals are likely being washed onto the soil with every rain,” MATA’s Ye Win Myint said.

The MATA report criticised a paper prepared by the Chinese company-appointed contractor, and stated that “for all the key harming pollutants that were sampled in Tigyit the levels were higher than national standards.” It also found that “concentrations of high metals in water are above World Health Organization Water Drinking Standards.”

‘The government did nothing for us’

For Ye Win Myint, the lack of action by the authorities is shocking, given that in studies of the area even samples of children’s hair were found to contain chemicals that can cause brain damage.

The researchers complained to the ministry of health. “At first they responded positively, but nothing changed,” Ye Win Myint said. “The [ethnic] Intha minister wrote a letter to review the whole project, but no response came from the state counselor.”

While there is widespread opposition to the power plant among local communities, some people who work there are said to support it. “If they protest, they will lose their jobs; however only 20 per cent of 150 employees are local,” Ye Win Myint said.

The Upper Balu River, one of the creeks located in Tigyit, flows to Myanmar’s iconic Inle Lake, leading to concerns for the ecosystem on which the Indigenous Intha people rely. Despite the concerns raised by local communities, no comprehensive study of the contamination of the local creeks was ever conducted by the government, while MATA ”lacked money and resources to do it,” Ye Win Myint said.

“Inle Lake is a UNESCO-recognised area, and deserves protection within a 20-mile [32-kilometre] radius, but no one is enforcing it,” he said.

Tin Myint Soe of the Nyaungshwe-based Wetland Office is in charge of Inle Lake’s protected area. He said they are “not in possession of monitoring tools to check the pollution of the lake and possible damage to aquatic life.”

“The Chinese company committed itself to paying money for the damage and road repair but the affected people have not seen any money,” said Daw Kan Kayn, a member of People Voice, a local civil society organisation. “The explosions from mining have continued, shaking the houses.

“We are confused because the government did nothing for us,” she added.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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