Myanmar: Ridge to Reef Conservation Project

  • Overview

    Communities in Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region are taking action to ensure that conservation efforts in a conflict zone respect Indigenous rights, enable internally displaced communities and refugees to return to their land, and protect the fragile peace process in the region.

    Communities affected by Ridge to Reef are taking action to ensure that conservation
    efforts respect their rights.

    Enduring Myanmar’s 70-year civil war, the rich biodiversity in South East Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region now faces existential threats from the emergence of unsustainable palm-oil and rubber plantation development, illegal logging, a proposed industrial corridor, and over-exploitation of fisheries.

    In response, Myanmar’s government and international conservation organizations are establishing Protected Areas to preserve the region’s ecosystems, including through the “Ridge to Reef Integrated Protected Area Land and Seascape Management Project.” The project covers over 1.4 million hectares of land, including national parks, lowland evergreen rainforests, mangroves in Myeik archipelago, and islands and marine systems, which are important resources to the communities in Tanintharyi.

    While protecting the rich biodiversity in Tanintharyi Region is vitally important, communities have four main concerns about the Ridge to Reef project.

    • First, the project is being developed with a top-down approach to conservation that puts Indigenous Karen communities, who have lived in and sustainably managed the area for generations, at risk and violates their right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC).
    • In addition to threatening to cut off these communities from their livelihoods and way of life, the project also violates the right of return for refugees and internally displaced people who were forced from their land in the project area during the civil war.
    • The project jeopardizes future peace prospects because the project’s decision making structure violates the ceasefire agreement that ended the armed conflict by excluding one of the groups required to jointly make decisions for the region.
    • Finally, the project fails to recognize and support Indigenous, community-driven initiatives to protect territories, strengthen local institutions, and protect forests and resources in the project area.

    The US$21 million Ridge to Reef project is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), partly through funds from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Other project funders include Myanmar’s government, Fauna and Flora International, and the Smithsonian Institution.

    Given the project’s severe risks, Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT), a coalition of Karen community organizations working in the Tanintharyi region, is raising concerns about Ridge to Reef to UNDP. In August 2018, CAT submitted a complaint to UNDP’s accountability office on behalf of 612 community members, calling for the suspension of the Ridge to Reef project until a comprehensive FPIC process is carried out and guarantees are put in place for the safe and voluntary return of those displaced by civil war.

    UNDP Myanmar suspended all activity relating to the Ridge to Reef project in August 2018, but has made some attempts to suppress community concerns and resume the project.

    Accountability Counsel is supporting CAT to prevent harm from Ridge to Reef and advance community-led conservation in the Tanintharyi Region through the UNDP complaint process.

    Read more about UNDP’s SECU and SRM.

  • The Story

    Southeast Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region is home to rich biodiversity and unique lowland evergreen rainforests, mangroves, and marine ecosystems. These resources are of great livelihood, cultural, and spiritual importance to the Indigenous Karen communities who have lived in and managed these areas for generations.

    This area has seen decades of armed conflict during Myanmar’s 70-year civil war, resulting in the displacement of nearly 80,000 people. Following the cessation of the fighting, the region is experiencing rapid change. Natural resources that were previously off-limits are now being threatened by the emergence of unsustainable palm-oil and rubber plantation development, illegal logging, a proposed industrial corridor, and over-exploitation of fisheries. At the same time, communities displaced by the conflict are beginning to return to their lands.

    The Ridge to Reef project covers about one-third of the Tanintharyi Region. Communities
    are concerned that the project ignores their rights and threatens peace prospects.

    Project Background

    In response to these threats to biodiversity, the government and international conservation organizations are establishing government-proposed Protected Areas across the region, including through the “Ridge to Reef: Integrated Protected Area Land and Seascape Management Project.”

    The project covers over 1.4 million hectares of land, including national parks, lowland evergreen rainforests, mangroves in Myeik archipelago, and islands and marine systems, which are important resources to the communities in Tanintharyi. In all, the project comprises about one-third of the Tanintharyi Region.

    The US$21 million project is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with funds from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Other project co-financiers include Myanmar’s government, Fauna and Flora International, and the Smithsonian Institution. Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation is the primary agency coordinating the project. The Ridge to Reef Protected Area has a planned duration of six years, from October 2017 until September 2023.

    Community Concerns

    Communities are concerned that the Ridge to Reef project is being developed with a top-down approach to conservation that fails to respect local communities’ rights and puts the fragile peace process in the region at risk. In particular, the project violates Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Despite having significant impacts on the livelihoods and way of life of the Indigenous Karen communities who have lived in the area for generations, there has been no comprehensive FPIC process to date.

    In addition, the Ridge to Reef project threatens to prevent Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees who were forced to leave their land during the civil war from returning to their homes in the project area, violating their right of return.

    The lack of adequate consideration to the conflict setting of the Tanintharyi Region is also of grave concern to local communities. The Tanintharyi Region is held under mixed administration between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union (KNU). Under interim arrangements of the National Ceasefire Accords (NCA) agreed to by the Government of Myanmar and eight Ethnic Armed Organizations, including the KNU, governance decisions within mixed control areas must have the agreement of both administrations. As the KNU has indicated, this Project would break the terms of the NCA. The KNU has also warned against projects expanding government administration in jointly administered areas. Given the pressures on the peace process, local communities worry that the Ridge to Reef project would undermine future peace prospects in the area.

    Communities are calling for suspension of Ridge to Reef until a comprehensive FPIC process
    is carried out and guarantees are put in place for the return of those displaced by civil war.

    The Complaint

    Given the severe risks posed by the project, Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT) submitted a formal complaint in July 2018 to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Conflict Resolution Commissioner, who facilitated direct contact with UNDP and its accountability mechanism. In August 2018, CAT decided to forward its GEF complaint to UNDP’s accountability office, with the signatures of 612 Indigenous individuals from villages in Lenya and Monorone areas.

    The complaint details local communities’ concerns, including that the project:

    • is violating the Indigenous communities’ right to FPIC;
      will violate the rights of IDPs and refugees who were displaced by the civil war to return to their land in the project area;
    • threatens to violate the interim arrangements for governance decisions in mixed control areas under the National Ceasefire Accords;
    • violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the land and resource rights of Indigenous communities; and
    • fails to recognize and support Indigenous, community-driven initiatives to protect territories, strengthen local institutions, and protect forests and resources in the project area.

    The complaint calls for the suspension of the Ridge to Reef project until a comprehensive FPIC process is carried out and guarantees are put in place for the safe and voluntary return of those displaced by civil war.

    CAT has first requested a compliance review investigation by the UNDP Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (SECU), followed by a dispute resolution process facilitated by the UNDP Stakeholder Response Mechanism (SRM) to re-design the project in a way that supports the conservation efforts Indigenous Karen communities have engaged in for centuries.

    Responses So Far

    UNDP Myanmar put activities relating to the Ridge to Reef project on hold indefinitely in August 2018. However, UNDP Myanmar has made some attempts to suppress community concerns and resume the project.

    SECU determined in December 2018 that the complaint submitted by CAT is eligible for compliance review, and has released Draft Terms of Reference for a compliance investigation.

    In 2018, CAT requested Accountability Counsel’s assistance as the communities engage in the UNDP complaint process. As the process moves forward, we are supporting CAT to prevent harm from Ridge to Reef and advance community-led conservation in the Tanintharyi Region.

    Case Partners

    Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT): a coalition of Karen community organizations working in the Tanintharyi Region, formed in 2014. CAT aims to promote conservation of biodiversity together with people, and protect the rights of Indigenous communities. Member organizations include:

    1. Tenasserim River & Indigenous People Networks (TRIP NET);
    2. Community Sustainable Livelihood and Development (CSLD);
    3. Tarkapaw Youth Group (TKP);
    4. Candle Light (CL);
    5. Southern Youth (SY); and
    6. Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).
  • The Case
    • May 2019

      CAT submitted a letter to SECU with comments on the Draft Terms of Reference for its investigation.

    • Apr 2019

      SECU released Draft Terms of Reference for its investigation.

    • Feb 2019

      CAT wrote a letter to SECU outlining attempts by UNDP Myanmar to suppress community concerns and resume the project. The letter advocated for continued project suspension and the need for a compliance investigation.

    • Dec 2018

      UNDP Myanmar issued a response to SECU’s eligibility determination, clarifying that it temporarily suspended project activities after CAT’s complaint, and proposing to resume project activities under certain conditions.

    • Sep 2018

      CAT confirmed to the compliance arm of UNDP’s accountability office, the Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (SECU), that it wished to pursue a compliance review process, and requested SECU invoke its powers to recommend that UNDP “enact temporary and pre-emptive measures, suspending financial disbursements pending completion of the compliance process due to imminent, significant and irreversible harm to communities.”

    • Aug 2018

      CAT forwarded its GEF complaint to UNDP’s accountability office.

    • Jul 2018

      Conservation Alliance Tanawthari (CAT) submitted a formal complaint to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Conflict Resolution Commissioner who facilitated direct contact with UNDP and its accountability mechanism.

  • Impact

    Accountability Counsel is providing technical expertise to CAT through the UNDP accountability office complaint process. To date, we have conducted trainings for CAT and support around the complaint process.

    This case is in early stages, and we will continue sharing progress as the complaint moves forward. Accountability Counsel will continue supporting locally-determined goals for the case by advising CAT through the UNDP complaint process to prevent harm from the Ridge to Reef project and advance community-led conservation in the Tanintharyi Region.

  • Case Media

    Media Coverage

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