By Hnin Wut Yee, MK31 Fellow
Wan Hsala is a secluded village along the Wan Hsala Stream housing a little over 30 households with a total population of approximately 100. As one of the small villages along the Salween River in the Eastern Shan state, the majority of its villagers are part of the Shan ethnic minority, while a few are ethnic Lisu and Bamar. Today, these villagers are facing actual and potential negative impacts from a hydropower construction project started about a decade ago. The local villager's limited knowledge of their rights and their lack of participation in the project have caused them to be taken advantage of. It is crucial that a solid framework of national and international standards reinforced with a strict enforcement vehicle is in place before any further project decisions are made.
A majority of villagers in this area are dependent on water, land, forest and mountains for their livelihoods. They have their own system of sharing alluvial land and shifting cultivated plots among their community. Nevertheless, due to underdeveloped transport infrastructure and limited education opportunities, they are barely exposed to the outside world.
Many of them do not speak Burmese; they only use the Shan ethnic language. They maintain traditional cultural practices such as paying respect at the “Nat Sin”, a shrine for the village guardian spirit called the “ywasaungnat” to get relief from their economic, social, and health issues. The majority are Buddhists and collectively organise traditional Buddhist activities. For instance, together with nearby villages they hold a candlelight floating festival along the Salween River that is similar to “Loi Krathong” in Thailand. Hence, they have distinct cultural, social, and economic traditions that separate them from mainstream society in Myanmar, and as such they can be regarded as “Indigenous Peoples” according to international definitions.
Not far from Wan Hsala, just across the Salween River on the southwestern side, lies Tar Sang village where villagers are predominantly Burmese. While Wan Hsala village was apparently established prior to the Independence of Myanmar, Tar Sang village is believed to have been established about ten years ago when the bridge that joins both sides of the Salween River was constructed with Chinese and Thai support. The majority of Tar Sang villagers are relatives of the army personnel that were stationed on both sides of the bridge.
In contrast to Tar Sang, the government does not provide Wan Hsala with any services apart from a primary school that is in spite of that not properly funded. Fortunately, while Wan Hsala is situated in the area where the army and the Lahu Pyithusit (Lahu army) co-exist, it is still relatively peaceful and not currently impacted by civil war.
Chinese who illegally enter Myanmar engage in gold mining activities in the Salween River. More broadly, a lucrative enterprise seems to have emerged on both sides, profiting from the vast amount of Chinese and Thai businesses that legally or illegally cross over and under the bridge. While illegal extraction of gold and logging benefits foreigners and local elites, they do not create any positive externalities for local villagers. To their dismay, some villagers have even reported that they faced restrictions by some groups of Chinese in the deep forest areas, from which they get their valuable herbal medicine and other forest products. They do not know whether those who restrict them are linked to the potential dam projects along the Salween River, or the above-mentioned illegal immigrants involved in extractive businesses.
Moreover, ten years ago Thailand’s MDX Group of Companies built a small-scale dam named Tar Sang Dam on the Wan Hsala Stream. Its aim was to provide electricity for infrastructure that included staff housing during the preparation stages of the large-scale Tar Sang Dam project, that has since been replaced by plans for the proposed Mong Ton Dam. Just a year ago, the Thai staff left the project site and the structure is currently unoccupied.
Villagers reported that one or two information sessions were held prior to the preparatory projects. However, they still clearly lack adequate information about projects being carried out in their backyard. They do not really know what the implications would be for them, nor do they know how to negotiate with the project developers to effectively prevent any negative impacts and to participate in any benefits of the project.
Uncontrollably, the livelihoods of the villagers in Wan Hsala have recently started to change. It was only a few years ago that villagers began experiencing a drop in fish stock in their stream, as well as a reduction in arable farmland due to erosion at their stream bank. Especially during the hot season, the Wan Hsala Stream’s depth and water quality, on which villagers extensively rely for daily use, has been dropping. Moreover, while the big company structure next to them was continuously lit up, the villagers who are also in need of electricity were never offered any. Instead, they have to generate it themselves by constructing small-scale hydroelectric power stations for their households.
The few benefits they did receive from the preparatory project were access to Thai doctors from the project clinic, the opportunity for women to sell vegetables to the project staff, and employment of some villagers at the construction site. Nevertheless, since the place was left unoccupied last year, they no longer have health service, but are left with diminishing income, natural resources, and uncertainties about their future.
When Wan Hsala villagers were asked whether they knew about the plan to build a 7000 MW hydroelectric dam previously called Tar Sang Dam and now called Mongton Dam just 19 kilometres away from their village, the majority barely had any idea. When they came to realize some of the potential negative impacts it could have on them, they raised their concerns and objections regarding the project.
Project developers have not adequately consulted with the villagers. However, it should be the responsibility of the companies involved in the project to conduct meaningful discussions with potentially impacted people. For more information on how to respect the rights of indigenous people by businesses, one should read the briefing paper on “Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and Business in Myanmar” published by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.
Myanmar has voted in favour of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Relatedly, Myanmar recently approved its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Procedures on 29 December 2015, and requires projects with potentially adverse impacts on Indigenous Peoples to comply with international standards. The International Finance Corporation’s IFC performance Standard 7 and ADB Safeguard policy statement also provides guidance to companies on how to pursue Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) to avoid infringing on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is absolutely crucial for local villagers to know their rights, and for their voices to be heard, along with the implementation and actual enforcement of international standards that are designed to help protect their interests.
The case of Wan Hsala’s villagers clearly highlights that there is a fair amount of progress to be made in this area, as their rights were not respected and their voices are yet to be heard. Companies involved in the construction of the dam failed to engage in meaningful and participatory consultation that would ensure the protection of local villagers’ rights. For that reason, my research aims to further investigate how women and men face actual and potential impacts of hydropower dams and other large-scale projects on a day-to-day basis, and how existing national and international standards could be applied more effectively to help protect indigenous peoples’ rights and interests.
Edited By Siri Luther