The refugee who created a refuge for nature in a conflict zone

The refugee who created a refuge for nature in a conflict zone

Raised in a refugee camp, Paul Sein Twa is one of Myanmar’s leading environmental defenders. Despite living in a conflict zone, he has been instrumental in protecting swathes of his homeland

Indigenous leaders across the globe are winning gamechanging environmental victories against the odds. In our ‘guardians of the wild’ series, we hear from those who have defeated oil companies, cancelled mining contracts and won the right to stewardship of millions of acres of land, risking their lives to protect the wildest places on our planet. 

Paul Sein Twa, Myanmar

Paul Sein Twa is an Indigenous Karen leader who grew up in a refugee camp along the Thai-Burmese border. He has dedicated his life to preserving the Salween River basin, the source of Asia’s longest free-fowing river, which runs from the Tibetan Plateau south to the Andaman Sea.

Due to years of conflict it is an isolated region, and one of the last remaining intact wildernesses in mainland south-east Asia – home to vast teak forests, endangered pangolins, tigers, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons and elephants.

As Myanmar transitions from a military dictatorship to a capitalist democracy, a flood of extractive industries has entered the region, including mining, logging, dams and agribusiness.

In response, Sein Twa spearheaded a plan to build a peace park – a strategy to preserve zones of biodiversity and cultural heritage that uses conservation to promote peacebuilding. 

Doing this in a conflict zone wasn’t easy. He worked with local government to mobilise Karen community support, holding public consultations with 348 villages representing some 68,000 people. They worked with the Karen Forest Department to replace colonial forestry principles with their own traditional practices, and helped communities define their land borders.

‘Our forests, mountains and rivers are our refuge, the home of our protector spirits,’ says Two. Image: Brennan O’Connor/The Goldman environmental prize

In 2018, the creation of the 1.35m acre Salween Peace Park was officially declared, a major victory for peace and conservation in Myanmar, and a defence against destructive development in the region.

“Our forests, mountains and rivers are our refuge, the home of our protector spirits, our pharmacy, our sources of food, and the place where we find solace,” Sein Twa said when he was awarded the Goldman environmental prize in 2020. “They are the foundation of our culture that has survived many attacks and has helped us to endure as a people.”

Main image: Brennan O’Connor/The Goldman environmental prize

This article is the third in our ‘guardians of the wild’ series. Over the coming weeks Positive News will be shining a light on the Indigenous groups that are scoring major victories for people and planet.

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