An Indigenous Peace Maker
Paul Sein Twa, 47, is an indigenous Karen who grew up along the Thai-Burmese border and has spent his life navigating the zones of conflict. He is deeply connected to the physical, spiritual, and cultural landscape of the Salween River basin, and has dedicated his life to preserving its land and traditions, which are deeply intertwined for the Karen people. In 2001, he co-founded the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) in order to protect the environment and culture of the Karen community.
Preserving Ancestral Territory
In 2005, as industrial development increased in the region, Sein Twa began facilitating a community-driven approach to protect the Salween River basin, with support from local government and others. He attended international meetings to learn about various conservation approaches and learned about the peace park model. Rather than responding to each new project that appeared, he launched a proactive strategy of environmental protection and self-determination for his community.
Peace parks—also known as transboundary protected areas—seek to preserve zones of biodiversity and cultural heritage using conservation to promote peacebuilding. Selous-Niassa Wildlife Corridor (Tanzania/Mozambique), Emerald Triangle conservation zone (Thailand/Laos/Cambodia), and Cordillera del Condor (Ecuador/Peru) are examples of earlier peace parks.
Sold on the concept of creating a peace park in their beloved Salween River basin, in 2016 Sein Twa and KESAN worked with Karen civil society and local government to mobilize Karen community support, holding public consultations, seminars, and educational meetings with 348 villages representing some 68,000 people.
In order to ensure community buy-in and involvement throughout the process, Sein Twa worked with local leaders to organize a community referendum to approve a charter and governance structure, garnering 75% community support. He worked with the Karen Forest Department to replace colonial forestry principles with traditional practices and helped communities define borders using natural landmarks. Sein Twa and his team used GPS to map parcels and accurately record Karen ownership of land, and they documented biodiversity and conducted data analysis in the forests.
On December 18, 2018, the Karen people officially declared the creation of the Salween Peace Park, to be managed by local Karen communities. The 1.35-million-acre park includes 27 community forests and three wildlife sanctuaries, protecting endangered populations of tigers, Sunda pangolins, black and sun bears, gaur, and hoolock gibbons, from extractive industries and development projects. The park’s borders were specifically designed to include proposed dam sites—including the Hatgyi dam—in efforts to stop destructive megaprojects.
In this still-volatile region, Sein Twa and KESAN are moving forward in assisting communities to develop land management plans, documenting biodiversity gains, and using the park as a bulwark against destructive megaprojects. Sein Twa is employing international environmental frameworks and collaborating with communities and local government to create peace and independence in the region. He is building a community-focused conservation zone with no boundaries between forest, wildlife, and indigenous communities. Sein Twa has ably combined grassroots environmental activism and indigenous self-determination to create the peace park in a conflict zone—a singular and unprecedented achievement. This is a major victory for peace and conservation in Myanmar.