Is Unesco overreaching in Myanmar?
The United Nations may soon recognize the country's pristine northernmost Putao area as a World Heritage Site, a protective designation many locals feel may cause more harm than good
“Full of Life, Full of Nature, Putao” read the cover of a recent edition of Myanmar National Airline’s inflight magazine, with a beautiful young woman sitting by a pristine river against a breathtaking mountainous backdrop.
Putao, the northernmost point in Myanmar’s Kachin State, is home to Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi, which stands at 5,880 meters and means “mountain where birds are happy” in the vernacular. International conservation outfits hope to keep it that way.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) recently announced it was considering to designate the Northern Mountain Forest Complex (NMFC), including Hkakabo Razi National Park, as a possible protected World Heritage Site. The Myanmar government first made the nomination in 2014, according to Unesco’s website.
The scenic area, replete with snow-capped peaks, forest-covered mountains and free-flowing rivers, would cover 11,280 square kilometers in the country’s northernmost region and abut on protected natural areas in neighboring China and India. Part of what makes the area so wild, wondrous and untouched – with its bounty of forest types and rare endangered species – is a long legacy of central government neglect under military rule.
Now, as politicians, officials and businesspeople wake to the pristine area’s mass tourism potential, concerns are rising that the local population will have little to no input on how such a UN designation would be implemented and managed. A recent Griffith University study, commissioned by Unesco, showed that nearly half of Unesco’s 229 designated global natural sites, many of which are parks or wildlife reserves, have any active tourism management plan.
The lack of voluntary consent and cooperation among local Putao communities raises questions about the proposal’s viability, particularly in an area home to a potent ethno-nationalist insurgency led by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The civil war, rekindled after a 17-year ceasefire collapsed in 2011, has displaced thousands amid widespread reports of military perpetuated rights abuses, including recent aerial attacks on civilian populations.
Despite a recent transition from military to democratic rule, Myanmar is still a highly centralized state, with an outsized governance role for the military under provisions in the country’s 2008 Constitution. While the transition has given rise to regional parliaments, local MPs are mostly powerless to enact laws that would give more autonomy to local communities over their land and resources. The KIA, like other ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, is fighting for local self-determination.
Unesco’s engagement with mainly central authorities, including ethnic majority Burmans appointed to Putao’s local government offices, is consistent with that top-down political structure, over which military officials still maintain strong authority. Critics of the designation process say consultations to date have followed – and arguably intentionally leveraged – lopsided power dynamics that favor central over local power.
During a visit earlier this year, Unesco and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based conservation outfit in support of the designation, pressed local leaders to reveal if they would approve a UN heritage site in their areas, as well as a southern extension of the current national park’s boundaries to encompass now inhabited areas, including in the town of Naung Mung.
The government’s proposal conservatively estimates 8,000 people live in Putao, including around 2,000 in the national park area and its proposed extension.
“The (foreign) representatives only insist on asking us if we would support the plan,” a local leader who requested anonymity said in recalling the meeting. “How can we answer anything if we don’t have all the information that comes with having our ancestral land made an international site?”
Other critics point to an alleged lack of local consultation in previous WCS-driven conservation initiatives. In 2001, the former military regime announced the western Hugawng region in Kachin state would be made into the biggest tiger reserve in the world. The WCS-promoted reserve pushed local villagers off of their ancestral lands, devastating many of their livelihoods. Parts of the conservation area were later opened to controversial plantation agriculture led by the Yuzana Corporation, whose cash crops are protected by military troops.
WCS has since been heavily criticized by nongovernmental organizations and other monitoring groups for failing to sufficiently consult with the local population before establishing the nature preserve. A WCS report on the tiger reserve published in 2010 failed to mention Yuzana’s military-protected plantations in the area and the displacement of local populations to make way for the preserve.
To be sure, World Heritage Site designation would put Putao on the global tourism map and generate new and rich foreign currency-earning business opportunities. But it’s not assured those opportunities would benefit local communities, as the central government and its business cronies would likely be given priority in developing hotels and other tourism-related infrastructure.
Putao, which is only access to international tourists by air, lacks modern tourism infrastructure. In many villages in the area, the only mode of transportation is walking along dirt tracks which are impassable to motor vehicles several months of the year. Places to stay are currently limited to a handful of locally run guest houses, trekking lodges and other family-run home-stays.
The outlier is the Malikha Lodge, a luxury hotel owned by prominent military-linked businessman Tay Za and run by his Htoo Hospitality company. Tay Za is one of Myanmar’s wealthiest tycoons and was on a US sanctions list for his ties to the previous rights-curbing military regime. Some locals fear that UN designation and a subsequent surge in tourism will result in the development of more high-end resorts that block access to once communal lands.
“We used to just walk past those areas at our will and feed our cows there when it was a public land space used by several villages,” said one village elder referring to the land in Mulashidi Village where Malikha Lodge is now located. “But we have been locked out since Tay Za claimed it was his, the arrangement made between a rich individual and the government far away from us,” he claimed. (Tay Za could not be reached for comment for this article.)
Local Putao populations have already been evicted from their traditional lands to make way for various private and commercial ventures, including state-backed large-scale agriculture and resource extraction. Some locals say they see a similar pattern emerging with land speculation by Yangon businesspeople in apparent anticipation the area will soon be designated a UN-protected heritage site.
Putao is not currently the site of any active fighting between armed groups and the Myanmar military. Still, many areas in Putao are heavily guarded by government troops and an allied local militia known as the Rebellion Resistance Force (RRF). The RRF has received military training and has been allowed exceptional policing powers. The militia’s leader, Tanggu Dang, is viewed by locals as Tay Za’s protector and right-hand man in the area.
World Heritage Site designation would put Putao on the global tourism map and generate new and rich foreign currency-earning business opportunities…but it’s not assured those opportunities would benefit local communities
Putao’s delicate ethnic and communal mix will make it highly difficult to achieve a mutual agreement on the designation. Communal tensions among ethnic Kachin sub-groups and between Kachin and ethnic Burmans recently resettled in the area already threaten to boil over. Longstanding differences between different Christian denominations among the Kachin, meanwhile, mean local religious leaders seldom, if ever, talk.
Some warn that handpicking locals who support the heritage designation as token consent could add fuel to these tensions. They say the government and international actors driving the designation are not aware of these complex local dynamics, which will be exacerbated if authorities start to implement bans on farming, hunting and fishing in new areas in the name of conservation. Many of Putao’s inhabitants already live on the edge of subsistence.
It is doubtful that the number of locals who would benefit from a World Heritage Site driven tourism boom will be greater than those who lose by being pushed from their lands, forests and rivers. While protecting and expanding Myanmar’s Northern Mountain Forest Complex’s biodiversity is in many ways a noble aim, the risk is that centuries-old traditional ways of life will be lost with Unesco designation.