Livelihoods in peril: Affected fisherfolk and farmers raise concerns on Salween River industrial projects

Photo by Jacqueline Storey

Mikayin Lake. Photo by Jacqueline Storey

“If someone takes our local water resource away, it will be harder for us to survive. If we were to become daily workers [in an industrial plant] we would only get 3000 kyats per day. We have big families – 10, 11 children, we cannot survive like that.

By Jacqueline Storey

“We don’t want to give our resources, our lakes and rivers, to anybody. Generation after generation, we have depended on these resources for our livelihoods.”

The 2,815-kilometer Salween River keeps afloat the lives of more than 10 million people in Myanmar. Together with surrounding mountains and lakes, the river sustains fisherfolk, farmers, and their families. However, impending industrial projects are causing people distress, leaving them worried about their future.

Recently, Oxfam and its partner Karen Environment and Social Action Network (KESAN) visited some of the affected villages, to hear from community leaders how the industrial projects which are being developed along the banks of the Salween river, are impacting on their lives.

In Mi Ka Yin village, Hpa-An Township, women and men worry about their survival if current plans to build a dam project  and a cement plant (at the Mi Ka Yin mountain) nearby to these villages on the Salween river are made into a reality.

“If someone takes our local water resource  away, it will be harder for us to survive.  If we were to become daily workers [in an industrial plant] we would only get 3000 kyats per day.  We have big families – 10, 11 children, we cannot survive like that.  We depend solely on the local natural resources.” 

With KESAN, the villagers conducted a resource mapping, to find out the potential impacts of the projects on their livelihoods.

“In this village we don’t need to worry about food – if you have no money, you can go to the lake or river, there’s food in the forest and lake– organic, no chemicals,” says one of the village representatives who participated in the resource mapping.  “Compared to being a daily wage worker [at a factory], we can earn more in just a few hours of getting vegetables and fish.”

A regular source of income is not the only thing being threatened by industrial projects in Mi Ka Yin. Communities that will be affected by the investments are worried about their rights to land as well. After conducting land mapping and a series of interviews among affected communities, KESAN learned that some vilagers had already lost their lands to the industrial area. To help villagers get their land back, or get fair compensation, KESAN is planning to mobilize communities with land facilitators, and establish a land committee.

Threats to land rights and water resources are not just a problem for the villages in Mi Ka Yin. They are also a growing concern for the villagers from Kaw Ku Island, some 80 kilometers along the river from Mi Ka Yin village.

“Because of the development projects along the Salween River, there are already reports of land grabs in the area. The people are worried about how the construction of dams will affect their island and their lives,” said Ko Saw Tha Po, KESAN spokesperson.

Ko Saw Tha Po said that though the island can be flooded during the rainy season, business is still good. People grow over 20 kinds of crops, like beans and squash.

“On this island, women and men depend on agriculture. The problem is, there are those who want to grab their lands because of the industrial zone.”

The concerns of the people from both Kaw Ku Island and Mi Kayin village in Kayin State reflect those of tens of thousands of people from farming and fishing communities in Kayah, Shan, and Mon states. These are the people who will be directly hit by industrial development projects, yet they have been excluded from decision-making processes on how the water resources they rely upon for their livelihoods will be used.

According to KESAN’s John Bright, new government policies and mechanisms are threatening traditional land management systems where everyone can take part in the decision making. Bright emphasized the need for people’s voices to be heard, to ensure sustainable livelihoods for the affected population.

Aside from KESAN, Oxfam also works with other partners: Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (MIID); Spectrum; Kalyana Mitta Foundation); and Gender Development Institute. Together, these partnerships aim to ensure that everyone has a voice, and every community will benefit from decisions made around water governance.

“By engaging communities, CSOs, and power holders from the government and private sector, we can work towards a more sustainable future for affected communities,” said Yu Yu Htay, Oxfam’s Natural Resource Management Programme Coordinator. “If all stakeholders have a say on decisions surrounding water governance, a future with an equitable and sustainable development along the Salween River is possible.”