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FROM BATTLEFIELD TO REFUGE

2019 - ongoing

From Battlefield to Refuge is a long-term documentary project, that explores community-led conservation by indigenous peoples in Myanmar within the context of the nationwide peace process, and in the midst of a push for large development projects in ethnic minorities areas containing some of the remaining wilderness in the Indo-Burma region. Along the way this work investigates the connections between some critical issues of domestic and global concern - from achieving sustainable development to the respect of human rights, from deep-seated ethnonationalism to cultural survival - seeking to reflect on the roots, and the potential impact of grassroots conservation initiatives for democratic governance, within an era of rapid social, economic, environmental, and political transformations in Myanmar.

At present stage, the research focuses in Karen State, homeland of Karen people in Southeastern Myanmar. The Karen are the third-largest ethnic group in the country and the armed conflict extending over seven decades between Karen revolutionaries and the Myanmar Army, has forced over time an estimate of 300,000 people to be internally displaced or seek refuge in Thailand. Despite a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed in 2015, led to overall improved security conditions, fighting and displacement persists, while mega dams planned by state and foreign companies continue to threaten one of the last major free-flowing rivers in Asia, the Salween River. Further south in Tanintharyi Region, since the country started opening its borders to international investment and trade after decades of military rule and isolation, agribusiness expansion, special economic zones (SEZ) along top-down protected areas, also threaten the forests that for generations Karen people have sustainably managed following traditional practices. In face of the alarming social and environmental impacts of such development ventures, local communities are embodying their vision for natural resource governance through initiatives that can guarantee the protection of their livelihoods, traditions, and human rights.

By documenting local communities’s ancestral knowledge, values and land management systems along how these coexist, and clash, with the values and interests of the Myanmar Army for centralisation, capitalism, and authority over the access, use, and control of natural resources, this work aims to contribute to a greater awareness of the roots of civil conflict, and the sociopolitical complexities embedded in community-led conservation efforts in highly contested borderlands. Ultimately, it aims to highlight the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in the sustainable management of Myanmar's vulnerable ecosystems.