Tanintharyi Myanmar Photo by Symeon Ekizoglou

Nature conservation in times of conflict: Myanmar

Two years ago, a military coup marked a turning point in Myanmar. It not only ended the administration of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy; it also stopped the democratic transition of the Southeast Asian country[1]Human Rights Watch. (2022). Myanmar: events of 2021. Violence, bombing and oppression are now a daily reality. Despite the threats they are facing, nature organisations continue to work with communities to protect their forests and livelihoods. We spoke with one of them: ‘Militants cut down mangrove forests for charcoal. It is the main cause of deforestation in the area, while the local families depend on mangroves for food and income.’

Header photo: Launglon in the Tanintharyi region, Myanmar. © Symeon Ekizoglou

Since the military coup, staff of the partner organisation we worked with in the Shared Resources, Joint Solutions from 2016 through 2020, hide in the forests of Tanintharyi, a region in southern Myanmar. We spoke with a staff member. For security reasons, the organisation and interviewee remain anonymous and will be indicated with ‘our partner’ and ‘they’.

Working in a conflict area

Our partner’s team is geographically divided because of the conflict. A few months after they closed their office, the Myanmar military went in to search their documents. While part of the staff remains in Tanintharyi, others went to their home towns or fled abroad. For all of them, traveling is complicated or even impossible. The communities they are working with are situated in Karen National Union area, while bordering areas are under control of the Myanmar military.

‘It is challenging, for all of our staff. We cannot be in one place and it is hard to gather information. Still, we have continued to work discreetly and strategically on our community and environmental activities,’ tells our partner. Their area is currently not part of the conflict zone, but this could change rapidly: ‘These villages we work in are not targeted by the Myanmar military, but the villages 20 miles away are. All of the communities in the area must have an emergency kit prepared.’

Our partner operates under Karen National Union (KNU) governance: ‘We and the communities in the area have a close relationship with the KNU authorities. Most people support the 2021 opposition against the military government and directly and indirectly support local defence forces.’

Myanmar’s civil war and the KNU

On 1 February, 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup d’état that sparked large protests by thousands, many of them young people. These protests were violently suppressed[2]Amnesty International. Myanmar: wat is er aan de hand. More than two years after the coup the war receives little attention in the media, but the violence has not ended. In April, airstrikes by the Myanmar army killed more than 160 people in the Sagaing region[3]Ajazeera. (2023). Myanmar military used vacum bomb on opponents:HRW}.

Myanmar has been embroiled in intermittent civil war since it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948. The region of Tanintharyi is a long and narrow strip of land in the southern part of Myanmar, covering 43,000 square kilometres[4]Reliefweb. Myanmar: Tanintharyi Region profile. Karen communities are a minority in this region, and are one of the many ethnic groups in Myanmar fighting for their rights as an Indigenous people. The Karen National Union is their main political organisation.

The country has a long list of ‘ethnic revolutionary organisations’ (EROs) fighting the military regime. Where most of EROs became active in the past decades, the KNU was founded in 1947, before independence. At first, they were striving for an independent Karen state, but since the 1970’s their objective is a federal system. In the areas under the authority of the KNU or another ERO, but also in other parts of the country, people show little support for the Myanmar military[5]The Irradawaddy. (2022) Ethnic Karen Fighters Take Control of Lower Myanmar Townships that ‘has sought to suppress and assimilate minority communities’ (South 2010)[6]Ashly South. (2011). Burma’s Longest War: Anatomy of the Karen Conflict.

Impact on nature conservation and sustainable development

The coup, ensuing military crackdowns and raging civil war have led to thousands of deaths and left more than a million people displaced. But a quieter crisis is also taking place as a collapsing formal economy, crumbling rule of law and the proliferation of conflict create the perfect conditions for the further exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources[7]Aljazeera. (2022). ‘Afraid of the gun’: Military coup fuels Myanmar resource grab.

Due to the escalated conflict, part of the activities that before were supported by the SRJS programme could not be implemented as planned, according to our partner. ‘In the villages, we work with community-based organisations (CBOs). Since our staff could not travel to these villages because of security measures, we can only meet with CBOs online and cannot provide close support. Nevertheless, we have been working with the local CBOs on establishing community forests, increased the awareness of youth, worked with peasants on improving their livelihoods, placed camera traps to monitor wildlife, and conducted other activities. We also still organise online conferences on environmental conservation with the KNU Forest Department.’

The circumstances also had an unexpected positive outcome: ‘The CBOs had to carry out project activities more independently. The leaders of the community-based organisations were forced to work together with other village leaders and had more opportunity to apply their abilities. They took all responsibility while we tried to stay in touch through internet. Nowadays, we are able to meet with part of the leaders again.’

One of the main objectives of our partner is empowering youth and women. ‘Unfortunately, the role of women in the projects has diminished,’ they say. ‘We must stay alert, since we do not know when violence will strike. Most women therefore stay at home and work the land. We have noticed that most people attending meetings are men now. But we continue to try to mobilise youth for the community-led conservation. In December 2022, we organised a youth camp teaching them GPS, monitoring and legal awareness skills.’

‘Militants cut down mangrove forests for charcoal. It is the main cause of deforestation in the area, while the local families depend on mangroves for food and income.’

Community monitoring

Community monitoring was one of the pillars of the SRJS programme in Myanmar. Community members still report illegal mining and logging activities, tells our partner: ‘If a villager logs illegally, it is reported to the community forest committee. If it concerns a company or authority, we send an official letter with all data to the KNU regional forest department.’

Large mining and logging companies can get permission from the Myanmar military government to extract natural resources. These are national companies that are connected with multinationals; many investors are waiting to enter the area and mine for tin or lead, according to our partner. Our partner conducted research on these companies: ‘Sometimes their permit has expired, but they just continue.’

Because of this, community members are monitoring their environment more closely these days: ‘Community-based organisations and other villagers are more aware of outside parties wanting to extract natural resources from the area. When they observe foot prints or traces of mining activities, they inform us and then we discuss our options. Often the CBO’s try talking with the people of the company first.’

Deforestation of mangroves

In the past, oil palm plantations of a Korean company directly caused deforestation in the region, but the company stopped the expansion after large protests of the villagers in 2018. ‘Since then, there has been no more logging or planting of oil palms, but the communities still suffer from environmental degradation. This results in declining water levels and wildlife invading small farms due to the loss of habitat,’ tells our partner.

The communities in Tanintharyi proof their resilience to conflict, but the current situation is still a major challenge to them. Mangrove forests play an important role in their livelihood: in these rich ecosystems, families fish for shrimp and collect wood for cooking.

Charcoal has become a popular business since the coup, especially among local militants supporting the military coup. Because of their presence, it is dangerous for families to enter the mangroves, tells our partner: ‘Militants cut down mangrove forests for charcoal. It is the main cause of deforestation in the area, while the local families depend on mangroves for food and income.’

Conflict and food insecurity

Since the coup in February 2021, about 1 million people in Myanmar are internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries Thailand and India. They had to leave their houses and their land to find refuge from the conflict. Due to inflation, a lack of jobs and food insecurity, people are now also moving to other parts of the country in search of other forms of livelihood.

According to our partner, there are currently no displaced people from other regions in Tanintharyi, but people regularly have to leave their homes for short periods. ‘The conflict has major consequences for the local population,’ they say. ‘If the fighting takes place near their village, many people flee to a neighboring village for several days or longer. They do not return home until the fighting has stopped, which affects crops and endangers their food security and livelihoods. People help each other as much as they can. In addition, they receive humanitarian aid from an alliance of local NGOs, of which we are also a part, distributing the resources among the local population.’

Shared Resources, Joint Solutions: ongoing impact

From 2016 through 2020, IUCN NL worked with our local partner organisation on strengthening the (climate) resilience of Karen communities in Tanintharyi through community-led conservation. Our joint efforts in Myanmar were part of Shared Resources, Joint Solutions (SRJS): a strategic partnership with WWF funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented with 200 partners around the globe. The SRJS programme ended in 2020, only just before the violent military coupe took place on the 1st of February 2021.

Despite the challenging context, the SRJS activities have an ongoing impact on the communities in Tanintharyi, tells our partner organisation: ‘Because of the work we did with IUCN NL, we are now able to continue with activities on sustainability, civic rights and empowerment. Because of the camera traps purchased as part of the SRJS project, we can still monitor wildlife and other activities in the forest. We are still connected with the other SRJS project partners in Myanmar, we meet regularly online and collaborate with some of them to train staff and local people.’

More information?

Evelien van den Broek
Senior Expert Environmental Justice


1 Human Rights Watch. (2022). Myanmar: events of 2021
2 Amnesty International. Myanmar: wat is er aan de hand
3 Ajazeera. (2023). Myanmar military used vacum bomb on opponents:HRW
4 Reliefweb. Myanmar: Tanintharyi Region profile
5 The Irradawaddy. (2022) Ethnic Karen Fighters Take Control of Lower Myanmar Townships
6 Ashly South. (2011). Burma’s Longest War: Anatomy of the Karen Conflict
7 Aljazeera. (2022). ‘Afraid of the gun’: Military coup fuels Myanmar resource grab