American conservationists linked to tiger destruction in Burma « Mining Blog

American conservationists linked to tiger destruction in Burma

20. November 2012,

Barack Obama’s recent official trip to Burma may seem to have conferred a “seal of approval” on the recently-elected government. Ironically, even as he prepared to address the country’s leadership, some Burmese groups were attacking villagers belonging to the Rohingya religous and ethnic minority group. The government has failed to stem these atrocities, which have already cost hundreds of lives and forced many to flee the country. And opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has so refused to condemn the government’s inaction.

Meanwhile, a Burmese land rights activist and environmentalist, Bawk Jar, has warned that: “The massive environmental destruction inflicted on the Hukaung (aka Hukawng, Hugawng) Valley by large scale logging, gold mining and plantations has very likely killed off all the existing tigers in the area” [The Irrawaddy, 16 November 2012].

Located in north western Kachin State, the entire valley, consisting of almost 22, square kilometers (8,452 square miles), is officially home to what the Burmese regime declares is the world’s largest tiger reserve. However, Bawk Jar claims to have observed a sharp decline in the Hukaung’s environment over the past decade and local hunters have told her “ there are no more tigers left.”

She accuses Burma’s Yuzana Corporation of “bear[ing] the bulk of the responsibility for destroying the Hukaung Valley’s environment” [The Irrawaddy, ibid].

The owner of the Yuzana Coporation is a Burmese national called Htay Myint.

Described as “one of Burma’s most powerful tycoons”, Myint is also a member of parliament for the country’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Importantly – especially in the light of Obama’s recent visit to Burma – Mr Myint has also been placed on the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions list, due to his close ties to the former junta [The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2012].

Since 2006, says Ms Jar, and with the cooperation of local authorities, the corporation has expropriated more than 200,000 acres of farmland from more than 600 households in the valley. Activists claim that: “The once-thriving small scale farming plots have been transformed into full scale cassava, tapioca and sugarcane plantations. Yuzana’s land seizures directly impacted more than 10,000 people in the valley who have been left destitute without means to feed themselves” [The Irrawaddy 16 November 2102].

During the lead-up to the Burma’s 2010 election, as the relationship between the KIO and Burma’s government worsened, Yuzana increased its own militia by arming 800 employees, many of whom were ex-military personnel, according to the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), an organization focused on environment and human rights issues in Kachin State. [The Irrawaddy, ibid].

In August 2012, after angry farmers displaced by Yuzana – some at gunpoint – launched protests, petitions and lawsuits, the firm returned a small portion of their land [The Irrawaddy, 31 August 2012]. Nevertheless, this is believed to comprise less than five percent of the total area seized by Yuzana [The Irrawaddy, 16 November 2012].

Compounding the food shortage in the valley, the large scale open pit gold mining operations of Yuzana, along with smaller unregistered mines “have also killed off much of the once vibrant fish life in the local rivers”, says Bauk Jar. “The lack of fish is particularly noticeable along large stretches of the Mogaung River where Yuzana’s cyanide-intensive shoreline mining operations regularly send large amounts of toxic waste” [The Irrawaddy, 16 November 2012].

Role of US “conservationists”

Despite his busy southeast Asian schedule, president Obama might also at least have taken note of the alleged part played by two US organisations in promoting this destruction.

The Hukaung tiger reserve was established in 2001 by Burma’s then-ruling military junta, with the enthusiastic backing of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Critics claim this process received “ almost no input whatsoever from local villagers or valley residents” [The Irrawaddy ibid].

Officially the reserve was expanded in 2004 to encompass the entire Hukaung Valley. But, claims the KDNG: “[L]ocal reports suggest little conservation has actually taken place since. In fact, over the last eight years government authorities have actively encouraged wide-scale clear cut logging, mining and plantation farms to take root in this ecologically sensitive area” [The Irrawaddy, ibid].

Since becoming involved in the valley and its purported conservation, the WCS and its partner organization Panthera, a tiger-focused conservation group, have alleged that “the biggest threat to the region’s tigers was from local villagers and hunters” [The Irrawaddy, ibid].

The Panthera Corp was set up and is run by Thomas Kaplan, the owner of a high-flying mining private equity fund called Electrum Strategic Resources LLC. [See: http://moneytometal.org/index.php/Electrum_Strategic_Resources_LLC[.

Yet, says The Irrawaddy, both WCS and Panthera “have failed to make a direct mention of Yuzana or the firm’s allies in the military who were busy expropriating land, chopping down trees and destroying the tiger habitat, a clear and deliberate oversight….WCS failed to respond to repeated requests from The Irrawaddy regarding the current status of the tiger reserve [The Irrawaddy ibid].

Likewise, Panthera has so far not responded to the newspaper’s questions regarding the fate of the tiger reserve [The Irrawaddy ibid].

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