Foreign investment threatens Burma's ethnic minorities: report

Foreign investment has risen dramatically over the past year, as international companies cooperate with Burma’s government to exploit the country’s natural resources. But those resources are concentrated in areas occupied by ethnic minorities, and projects such as hydroelectric dams have already sparked fighting between ethnic armed groups and government forces.

The influx of investment threatens both ethnic minorities and the environment, according to a new report by the Burma Environment Working Group (BEWG). The report highlights how Burma lacks any meaningful frameworks on environmental protection and sustainable development that would enable citizens to take part in decision-making about their country’s development, despite a recent transition to a military-dominated parliamentary political system. Land tenure remains weak and there are no safeguards in place to protect farmers, according to the groundbreaking report, which is the first ever to take aim at Burma’s environment as a whole.

The 100-page publication, entitled Burma’s Environment: People, Problems, Policies, demonstrates serious risks facing Burma’s extensive biodiversity and abundant natural resources, and it challenges the direction the country is taking toward increased large-scale resource extraction projects in the oil, gas, hydropower and mining sectors. Burma is a state party to several international treaties relating to the environment, but according to the report it is unclear whether the contents of those treaties have been ratified in practice and incorporated into domestic law.

“As opposed to the Burmese regime's strategy of political consolidation, many international treaties and conventions recognize the rights of local people as key stakeholders in decision making about the sustainable use and management of natural resources,” said Paul Sein Twa, convener of BEWG. “The
Burmese regime evidently became party to some of these treaties to present a favorable image to the outside world.

Thus far, the thin facade of governance mechanisms, national environmental laws and policies that exists in Burma has been driven by external influence, rather than by any genuine Burmese government interest in environmental issues and people's needs. Although the current government now has a thin varnish of legitimacy it still has neither the political will nor the commitment to deal with environmental affairs” Sein Twa added.

Burma does have domestic laws and policies related to protecting people and the environment, according to the report, but the country lacks the necessary administrative and legal structures, standards, safeguards and political will to enforce such provisions or to clarify the rights and duties they create. Burma’s recent move to a capitalist market economy with lingering socialist ideology, law, and policies has left farmers and the urban poor highly vulnerable to companies operating in a virtually unregulated and partial market economy, according to BEWG.

The report outlines that many civil society organizations are active in Burma on important projects and programs related to environmental protection and sustainable development, both inside the country and on its borders.

The report also finds that while they do not provide loans to Burma, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund remain engaged in the country. The Asian Development Bank in particular provides assistance through various channels and promotes private investment, impacting on the environment and local communities, according to the report.

As a whole, the report highlights the contentious nature of the natural environment in Burma today, particularly with respect to the irresponsible construction of large dams, untimely oil and gas extraction, unregulated mining, rampant deforestation, massive agricultural concessions, and the destructive illegal wildlife trade. Control over natural resources is a major cause of conflict in Burma’s ethnic areas, where the majority of the country’s economically viable natural resources are located.

Foreign direct investment in Burma often results in militarization and displacement, according to BEWG, and given the lack of sound policies and the unwillingness of the state to reconcile with ethnic armed groups, increases in foreign investment pose major risks to the environment and communities living in these areas.

Figures released by the Burmese authorities last month revealed that Foreign Direct Investment for thelast year reached USD $20 billion, the vast majority of which was in oil, gas and power sectors.

“Foreign direct investment in Burma’s natural environment is skyrocketing,” said Sein Twa of BEWG, “but there is no corresponding attention to environmental protection, multi-ethnic participation, and sustainable development.”

Sein Twa continued: “Thein Sein’s government is failing to make progress on these fronts. If the international community wants to help Burma pursue national reconciliation, democracy and an end to poverty, they must recognize that engaging on good governance; multi-ethnic participation and sustainable development are equal in importance to their political and economic agendas.”

BEWG recommends that Burma must have a sound policy framework for environmental protection and sustainable development. Until then new foreign investors investing in energy, extractive and plantation sectors should refrain from investing. Existing investors should immediately cease all project- related work - particularly in sensitive areas throughout Burma - until adequate safeguards are in place to ensure investment does not lead to unnecessary destruction of the natural environment and local livelihoods. At the same time, International NGOs and UN agencies should ensure people are recognized as key actors in their own development, rather than passive recipients of commodities and services, and civil society organizations should empower communities throughout Burma to understand their rights.

“The renewed war in Kachin state is an example of what Burma can continue to expect as foreign direct investment increases,” said Sein Twa, referring to the conflict that reignited June 9 between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burma Army around Chinese-led hydropower dams in Kachin State.

“Without genuine multi-ethnic participation and a sound regulatory framework, Burma’s environment will continue to be a source of conflict.”

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Date: 08/08/2011




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