On World Environment Day, EU Must Act to Protect Land Rights Defenders

Thwe Thwe Win on her land adjacent to the copper mine, seen in the background. 25 May 2016. Photo: Lauren DeCicca / Front Line Defenders

On World Environment Day, EU Must Act to Protect Land Rights Defenders

Erin Kilbride, Front Line Defenders

Today is World Environment Day. Farmers in County Kilkenny, Ireland, are spending it preparing for a big cattle dispersal at the Roscrea mart on Monday. In Scotland, a new farmer-owned cooperative is starting a strategy-sharing program to make livestock owners more profitable. British farmers are welcoming the public to “Open Farm Sunday” celebrations across the country.

And a few times zones away, a Burmese farmer named Thwe Thwe Win will spend World Environment Day protesting the massive copper mine destroying her family’s land.

Thwe Thwe is a 33-year-old farmer and human rights defender in Wethmay village, a hut-lined stretch of rural Myanmar nestled into the side of the Letpadaung mountains. She owns ten acres of land, five cows, and grows beans, sesame, and fruit. One good sesame harvest feeds her family for a year.

Myanmar is rapidly opening up to foreign investment, trade, and tourism following a major transition away from military rule, but as urban hubs like Yangon struggle to keep up with the demand for housing and retail space, the majority of Myanmar’s people still live in rural areas and depend on farming to survive.

Farmers and land activists, particularly those with a keen political eye like Thwe Thwe’s, say that if the European Union, which has put more than €100 million towards the peace process and sees itself as primed to do business with the new government, is keen to see democracy develop in Myanmar, the country’s majority rural population cannot be left out.

Four years ago this month, local authorities called villagers in Thwe Thwe’s area to the local school to tell them about the Chinese copper mine. It was the first time Thwe Thwe had been in the school house in two decades. She left her studies at age 12 to farm full-time.

Letpadaung copper mine. 27 May 2016. Photo: Lauren DeCicca / Front Line Defenders

At the copper mine meeting in 2012, authorities promised the community that their land would not be used without consent, that trash and soil from the mine would not be dumped on local farm land, and that any land acquired for the mine would be compensated at or above market value.

Four years later, hundreds of villagers have been forcibly displaced or coerced into leaving their land.

Hundreds more have lost crops and farm animals after contaminated water from the mine ruined land they had been tilling for generations. Dozens of families are living within fifty yards of an acid plant producing chemicals for the mine. Police have cracked down on peaceful anti-mine protests with tear gas and white phosphorous, and more than 150 monks and villagers now have permanent scars, some spanning more than fifty percent of their bodies where the chemicals burned them.

All land in Myanmar belongs to the government, not to the people, and farming families depend on usage rights to live and work on land they’ve cultivated for generations. In May 2015, the former government finalized a draft National Land Use Policy that, if made law, would be one of the most progressive in the region in terms of indigenous rights to land. Although the former government approved the policy in early 2016, no such progressive law followed.

“The 2015 draft policy is much better than anything we have to protect us now,” says Thwe Thwe. “But farmers aren’t fighting for a law because they don’t know the policy exists.”

“The less people know, the better the government and corporations can take advantage of them.” — Thwe Thwe Win
Thwe Thwe Win and other volunteers distribute water to a village near Wethmay. Locals say the village’s water supply has decreased due to new private agricultural business nearby. Photo: Lauren DeCicca / Front Line Defeners

Thwe Thwe is educating and strengthening her community’s land struggle. In addition to protesting, she hands out plainly worded legal advice and statistics on land grabs when she distributes water to local villages, and helps other farmers access the same support networks she has in Yangon. But her activism has not gone unnoticed by Myanmar’s authorities. As a result of her activism, she’s been arrested, followed by plainclothes police, had security forces stake out her hotel while attending farming conferences in Yangon, and receives regular phone calls from the local police station questioning her about her activities.

“I won’t stop, because this is about our land. I’d die for it. But I do want to know why the new democratic government is allowed to act like this,” she said.

Thwe Thwe has been to enough conferences in urban Yangon to know that there is a UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998. On my last day in Myanmar, she asked me why no one in the international community was pressuring “Aung San Suu Kyi’s government” to uphold its commitment to protect human rights defenders, including those in rural, remote communities.

The EU in particular is proud of the role it has played in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, but its lack of support for the country’s rural communities has left a noticeable gap. The European External Action Service boasts that “the EU has taken the lead in providing support for Myanmar’s democratic transition and reform process,” including opening a “full-fledged EU delegation to Myanmar in Yangon in September 2013.”

But most international attention has focused on the peace process and rebel groups in the border regions, largely ignoring the land rights abuses that affect millions of Myanmar’s people. A European Commission communication released this week acknowledged that “strengthening land rights, in particular by addressing the injustice suffered through land confiscation will be another challenge for the new government,” but provided no action items or commitments to reform the ongoing land grabs.

And while Myanmar’s new government occasionally makes international news for releasing human rights defenders and political prisoners from jail, the ongoing arrests, threats, and persecution of human rights defenders in rural communities rarely makes headlines.

If the EU really wants to support the new democracy, it must ensure that local farmers defending their land from corporate destruction are supported, not criminalised.

Thwe Thwe Win working on her land near the copper mine in Myanmar. 25 May 2016. Photo: Lauren DeCicca / Front Line Defenders

On World Environment Day, European leaders ought to be voicing support for land rights defenders who are being left out of Myanmar’s transition to democracy.

Neither Europe’s budget nor its reputation can afford to forsake Myanmar’s agricultural backbone, especially not if it plans to do business with the country long term. Widespread trust in Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the strongest assets the new government has right now. In Thwe Thwe’s village and the surrounding communities, most people believe that the new government will follow through on promises of compensation that have been made and broken by past regimes. But the longer farmers live without land, rights, or compensation, the more disenfranchised they will become.

The EU should pressure Myanmar’s new government to turn the 2015 land policy into law, and to make protection of environmental rights defenders a priority. A democracy cannot be built in Yangon alone, and, frankly, activists like Thwe Thwe Win don’t have time to fight for a place at the political table. They’ve got sesame to harvest.

Erin Kilbride is the Media Coordinator at Front Line Defenders, based in Dublin, Ireland.

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