Landscape of Life

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In May 2020, an alliance of Karen community groups called on the Myanmar government and the international community to abandon the 'Ridge to Reef' project, a top-down conservation project that threatens their environment and way of life. They offered an alternative in its place – an indigenous-led conservation plan, called Landscape of Life, that both protects the rich biodiversity of the Tanintharyi Region, and respects traditional peoples’ knowledge.

The $21 million “Ridge to Reef” project — supported by the Smithsonian Institute, the Myanmar government and other partners — would conserve nearly 5,500 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of land, coastline and marine areas in southern Myanmar’s Tanintharyi region and would be funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The project was suspended after community members submitted a complaint to the UNDP’s watchdog, asserting that the project was established without the Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous communities in the area. “We indigenous people didn’t know anything about this project. We never heard of it before. We didn’t even understand the meaning of the words ‘Ridge to Reef.’ They didn’t respect our right to FPIC,” said Saw Min Yan, a community leader from Hein Line, a village located within the project bounds.

Communities fear the project would result in harm to their lives and livelihoods, including restriction of access to traditionally managed lands and forests, the foreclosure of the rights of refugees to return to their lands, and an exacerbation of political tensions between the KNU and Myanmar government. “We do not want this project,” continued Saw Min Yan.

The rich biodiversity of the Tanintharyi Region has been managed and protected for generations by indigenous communities according to traditional knowledge and management practices.

A growing body of evidence suggests that indigenous land and forest management is key for the successful protection of biodiversity around the globe. While international conventions and organizations have started to adapt to this new paradigm, the Ridge to Reef project remains an outlier – projecting an outdated form of fortress conservation that has now been widely condemned.

Landscape of Life presents a vision of conservation in which interconnected, locally managed territories link up to form a contiguous indigenous landscape – a landscape of life. The Karen National Union Forest Department (KNUFD) are in the process of establishing and strengthening their wildlife sanctuaries and conserved forest areas. The Landscape of Life represents a bridge to connect these conserved areas up to maintain wildlife corridors and improve conservation across the Region.

Tanintharyi Region is an area of extreme ecological significance. The Region is home to some of the largest intact expanses of low-elevation evergreen forest, whose rich biodiversity includes substantial tiger, tapir and pangolin populations. The coastal areas are protected by some of the best-preserved mangrove forests in the Region, opening out into the vast Myeik archipelago and harbouring unique marine and island ecosystems.

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