By K. Roberts | MK31 Fellow
The de-militarization of Myanmar’s government has catalyzed the scramble for access, use, and control of the country’s many natural resources. As the Salween river traverses from the Tibetan plateau to Andaman sea, it cuts through the mountainous Shan state. These rich forests along its banks harbor endangered species and provide food and medicine to local communities. The rainy season floods leave behind mineral sediments that fertilize river bank gardens and the river teems with fish. Nam Kong - as the Salween is locally known - gives life to local communities, but to outsiders it represents a different sort of wealth. Its banks hide deposits of gold, its forests are unusually dense with valuable teak, and the river currents have significant hydropower potential. In a landscape of overlapping and contested authorities between the Burmese state, the Tatmadaw, and local ethnic armed groups, these resources are currency and control.
In Myanmar, my whiteness, my gender, and my language flag me as an outsider and in the Shan state they are my anti-passport, preventing me from traveling to the brown-zoned countryside. I set out this past summer wanting to investigate how this contestation of natural resource use along the Salween river effects local communities, but quickly hit barrier after barrier. My hands tied by my identity and my location locked by my foreigner status, I couldn’t figure out how to actually do the research.
All hail the power of collaborations! As Hellen Keller’s famously says “alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Alone I am just one person, one perspective, one experience, but together….together, much can be done. Fortune struck and I became a fellow on the MK 31 Salween River research project, which provided trainings, insight, and new friendships. By the end of the summer I had at least one person I knew I could work with and a chance conversation in October led to another collaboration. Suddenly, networks expanded, doors opened, and possibilities became real.
Now I sit writing this on a cool afternoon outside my friend’s office in the mountain town of Taunggyi. My head full from three days of workshops and brainstorming sessions. This research project has evolved from the limited scope of one outsider asking questions about resource use and access to a co-produced project, designed collaboratively between myself, two civil society organizations, and individuals working with those organizations. Questions of how to ask about forest and river resources, of what might matter most to communities, of civil society concerns, and of how to share what we learn, these are decided together. I share research experiences; my team members share their work in the region. My team members, along with their colleagues, will travel to two communities along the Salween River in the Shan state, one near the proposed Mong ton dam site and the other upstream in a community that would be flooded by the reservoir from the dam.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Together we designed research that addresses areas of interest for partner organizations, that incorporates insider and outsider knowledges, that meets the requirements of funding, that provides professional development for team members, and that empowers communities. Together relationships more important than this project can be built and together inroads and insights into major, complicated problems can be made. Together, we are sharing skills, knowledges, and experience across borders, languages, and barriers in a multi-directional co-production of knowledge.
The shiny papers, the neat and tidy conference presentations, mask this time consuming, unpredictable, and essential side to research. As the research is still progressing I cannot yet say if this research will be a ‘success’ in the conventional sense of the word, I cannot yet say what will be learned, understood, uncovered. All I can say is that through seizing opportunities, setting aside my own agenda and being willing to not understand, and by collaborating with other people and organizations, this project has the best chance of becoming something.