Peace Parks: A Political Tool for Self-Determination

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 Millions of Karen and other Indigenous peoples rely on the Salween for their food sovereignty, livelihoods, transportation, and spiritual practices. Credit: KESAN

As Burma’s first Indigenous protected and conserved area, the Salween Peace Park is a vibrant example of grassroots self-determination. In stark contrast to the highly centralized and militarized governance structures typical in Burma, the Peace Park is people-centred and community-driven. Managed through a democratic and gender-balanced governance structure, it asserts the inherent right – and responsibility – of Karen people to steward their own lands.

The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a long-term counterpart of Inter Pares, played an instrumental role in the development of the Salween Peace Park. KESAN has spent years fostering grassroots mobilization, facilitating community consultations, providing insights on democratic management structures, and sharing lessons from Indigenous protected areas around the world, including in Canada. To expand the potential impact of this initiative, KESAN is now connecting Salween Peace Park leaders with Indigenous communities from across Burma who are interested in developing their own parks.

Located in one of the most biodiverse areas in the Asia-Pacific region, the park spans 5,485 km² and encompasses more than 340 villages, 226 demarcated kaw*, 27 community forests, four forest reserves, and three wildlife sanctuaries. Aspirationally named, the Peace Park is also witness to ongoing violence: military offensives, forced displacement, rampant land confiscation, and resource extraction. In fierce opposition to the type of development desired by affected communities, the central government has plans to build disastrous mega-dams on the Salween River, the longest remaining free-flowing river in Southeast Asia.

The Salween Peace Park is more than a conservation initiative. It is a political mechanism to build lasting peace, protect lands and environmental sustainability, and safeguard cultural identity. It asserts Karen self-determination from within, by embracing and affirming Karen values, worldviews, and visions for peaceful coexistence.

“The [Salween Peace Park] Charter enshrines the right of the Indigenous Karen people to self-determination over how to manage and govern their natural resources and lands, and how to guide the sustainable development of their communities.” (SPP Charter Introduction)

Indigenous peoples in Burma have long struggled for decentralized governance – be it in education, health care, or the management of land and natural resources in their territories. At the heart of Indigenous peoples’ rights is self-determination: the right of all peoples to shape their own economic, social, and cultural development. This includes the ability of all Indigenous peoples in Burma to access culturally appropriate medical services in their own languages; land titling that reflects centuries of customary practices; and development that respects holistic visions of a healthy environment, sustainable livelihoods, and cultural survival.

At Inter Pares, we see the devastating impacts of failing to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada. As part of our solidarity approach, we help to connect Indigenous activists from around the world, to build relationships and exchange approaches around shared struggles. Both at home and internationally, Indigenous protected areas are increasingly recognized as essential for the conservation of our ecosystems, climate change mitigation, and the realization of Indigenous sovereignty– and we are honoured to support our partners in these initiatives.

*Kaw is the Karen term for ‘customary lands’ – locally recognized and managed territories.

 

The [Salween Peace Park] Charter enshrines the right of the Indigenous Karen people to self-determination over how to manage and govern their natural resources and lands, and how to guide the sustainable development of their communities.

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