The following is a statement by 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Paul Sein Twa.
By Paul Sein Twa
Thank you for this award that recognizes the efforts of indigenous Karen communities and local leaders to protect their territories of life and their culture, and to bring about real peace after a war that has afflicted many generations of our and other ethnic nationalities.
We are an indigenous people who depend entirely on Nature for our livelihood and well-being. We use Nature, live in Nature, and protect Nature. This is why, despite decades of war and exploitation of natural resource on both sides of the Thai-Myanmar border, we are still surrounded by rich biodiversity. Our forests, mountains, lowland fields, and rivers are our refuge, the home of our protector spirits, our pharmacy, our sources of food, and the place where we find solace and peace of mind. They are the foundation of our culture that has survived many attacks and has helped us to endure as a people.
In 2012, a ceasefire was signed that has reduced the attacks against the Karen people, but sadly has not ended them. In March 2020, yet another Karen forest defender was killed by Myanmar soldiers. Unfortunately, the ceasefire has even increased the war on Nature. Bureaucrats and the Myanmar military are busy introducing polluting industries—planning giant dams, mining projects, and roads that will cut into our heartlands. The Myanmar police recently tried to arrest one of our colleagues who had exposed water contamination and other problems related to these “development” projects.
This so-called development represents a threat to our existence—not just for us as Karen indigenous people in our territory of life, but for all of us inhabitants of the planet. The kind of growth it brings about is unsustainable, unrespectful, and unjust. The disappearance of great trees, the pollution of our waters, the fires and droughts of climate disruption, and many other signs show that this path is a road to ruin. We need a model of human development that rejects violence and greed, humbly learns from the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples, sustains Nature, and respects and meets the needs of all beings on our planet.
We Karen are proud to be members of a global movement of indigenous peoples and local communities who are stewards of nature. Despite centuries of attacks, our territories of life still cover over a quarter of the planet’s terrestrial area. With youth activists, community leaders, scientists, and environmental campaigners, we indigenous peoples are the frontline defenders against the planetary ecological and climate crises.
Our struggle is far from over. We must maintain the Salween Peace Park as a place that embodies our Karen vision of peace, cultural integrity, and harmonious co-existence with Nature. This award is a step toward gaining the international and local recognition and support that the Salween Peace Park needs to secure itself. The government’s military authorities and “developers” may not yet share our vision. Please help us to persuade them that it is also in their best interest to secure places where Nature and communities can live together and thrive. This is not only for us Karen people. Other indigenous peoples and local communities throughout the world demonstrate the capacity and the will to live as custodians of their own territories of life. This is one of the few and best hopes we have to leave future generations a future worth living.
About the author:
Indigenous leader Paul Sein Twa spent his childhood in a refugee camp, the result of decades-long conflict in his native Myanmar. Seeking to preserve the environment and Karen culture, Paul led his people to establish a 1.35-million-acre peace park in the Salween River basin in 2018, a major victory for peace and conservation in Myanmar. He is the co-founder of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) and president of the Salween Peace Park. Paul won the Goldman Prize for Asia in 2020.