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Protecting the Forest By Burning it Down

A field recently cleared for farming in Shan State, Burma. Kaelyn Lynch

In rural Burma, traditional agriculture practices have maintained the forest for decades, but can they endure in the face of modernization? 

“Can you see the difference?” asks Mu Ohn, jolting the motorbike to a stop in the middle of the dirt path. I follow his outstretched arms to the steep banks on either side of the road, which serves as a boundary between two villages.

“This village,” he says, motioning to the lush, seemingly impenetrable forest on his right, “still burns their forest. But this one,” pointing to the ragged collection of feeble-looking trees on his left, “does not.”

“Don’t you mean...” I begin, but Mu Ohn cuts me off with a shake of his head, turning so I can see his broad smile: “You’ll see.”

In rural Burma, some farmers like Mu Ohn practice the same agriculture methods as their ancestors. Perfected over generations, their technique of shifting cultivation has allowed them to live sustainably off the land while preserving the surrounding forest in an unexpected way—by burning the trees down.

Worldwide, traditional land management is cited as a way to conserve forests and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing nations. A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute examined hundreds of previous studies and satellite images to determine that increasing indigenous peoples’ land rights helped prevent deforestation and cut carbon emissions by billions of tons.

Losing 1.3 million acres of forest each year, Burma’s deforestation rate ranks only behind that of Brazil and Indonesia. While Burma’s former military junta heavily exploited the country’s natural resources, this trend has worsened even with the charge toward democracy over the past five years, as the nation opens to outside investment.

Deforestation is known to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change, leading to more severe flooding, drought, disease, and soil erosion. With around 70 per cent of its population still living off the land, Burma tops the UN Risk Model as the country most vulnerable to these effects; yet, only 6 per cent of Burma’s remaining forest is officially protected.

Tucked between the folds of a mountainous part of Shan State, Konwha village owns the dense forest we saw along the road. Here, they practice a method of rotational agriculture, in which a different tract of forest is cleared and burned each year for farming. After the harvest, the area is left alone for 18 years—the time, according to village law, it takes for the forest to regrow. This way, Konhwa manages to feed its 600-person population (with some left over for sale and trade), while ensuring the forest stays intact.

The image of a recently cleared field is hardly a poster for conservation. But the rotational system practiced in Konhwa can actually save more carbon than it produces.

The image of a recently cleared field—blackened earth dotted with stumps—is hardly a poster for conservation. In a 1957 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared this form of farming as “backwards” and credited it with causing widespread deforestation. More recently, it has been scrutinized for contributing to climate change; the burning of forests on carbon-rich peat lands in Indonesia released more greenhouse gases than the entire U.K. last year. This criticism, however, typically refers to instances where forests are permanently converted to land for farms, ranches, or industry.

On the contrary, the rotational system practiced in Konhwa can actually save more carbon than it produces. A study in nearby Thailand of a village using similar methods puts the difference at 60,000 tonnes absorbed versus 2,000 tonnes released.

According to Dr. Jurgen Blaser, a forestry expert cited in the study, “During restoration, forests require huge amounts of carbon to reproduce. . .it is for this reason that rehabilitating forests have a high capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.”

For traditional farmers this method offers direct benefits. Burning felled trees provides the otherwise poor soil with nutrients while clearing weeds, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Keeping the forest around the village intact offers protection against natural disasters and additional food sources.

“We protect the forest for many reasons,” a local farmer tells me, “The trees give us fertile soil, plants and animals to eat, and keeps the temperature cool. It also stops flooding during the rainy season and gives us clean water and air.”

Htun Lwin, a community organizer and educator with the Burmese NGO Kalyana Mitta Foundation, emphasizes these benefits during workshops on eco-farming, climate change and disaster risk reduction throughout rural Shan State. “Farmers know about climate change, they see the effects every year,” he says. “Their cultural traditions are already good for the environment. We want to help maintain them and restore them in places they’ve been lost.”

He says this outreach is especially important now, with traditional rural life coming increasingly under threat from modernization and industry. Poachers from other villages hack trees in search of roots for the lucrative medicine trade. Population increases and a shift towards a more cash-based economy also leads villagers to question how much longer their current practices can sustain them.

Their biggest concern, however, lies with land rights. According to the 2008 constitution, the state, “is the ultimate owner of all lands and natural resources,” while citizens are essentially renters that can be removed when the government sees fit. This enabled the government, military, and state-approved corporations to “grab” vast tracts of land from private owners for their own projects, often with little to no compensation. Since 2012, over 30,000 cases of unjust confiscation have been brought before the Farmland Investigation Committee, while many more go unreported by rural farmers without the means to travel or pay legal fees. Of these, only 4 per cent have resulted in remuneration for lost property.

While the newly-elected government has vowed to resolve all outstanding claims, it is unclear how much of a change in policy will occur as the nation prioritizes economic development. Today, only about 30 to 50 per cent of the rural population have formal land rights, meaning many remote places like Konhwa have no legitimate claim over the land they have occupied for decades.

This was the case in the nearby lowland village of Kon Sone, where elders recall a place once surrounded by “forest so thick, you could not see through it”—until the military confiscated the land and sold the trees as timber to China. Since then, the small farming community has suffered from mudslides, water contamination, and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Now the expansion of industry is beginning to reach further into previously untouched areas. Recognizing this, Htun Lwin is attempting to strengthen traditional methods in the face of the coming storm. He brings farmers from other regions to places like Konhwa to be trained in shifting cultivation, hoping to revive these practices elsewhere and garner them support throughout the country. He has also started to weave discussions on land rights into his trainings, encouraging farmers to petition the new government for better policies.

With support from Kalyana Mitta, Mu Ohn was able to obtain a GPS to mark the boundaries of his village’s forest, which he sees as the first step to legitimizing his community’s claim. As we scramble along steep, muddy slopes, he points out where places where boundaries were once marked simply by rocks wedged between tree branches. By officially mapping the land, he hopes to create a protected area based on the village’s customary law that will keep it from the groping arms of industry.

His work has a sense of urgency. At a peak overlooking the territory, Mu Ohn points to a nearby area recently cleared for a government-run mining operation. “If they’ve found coal, they’ll come for us next,” he says.

Admiring my dirt-stained clothes, he jokes, “You look like a farmer.” Then, more seriously, “Now that you’ve felt the land like us, it is in your heart. You can understand now why we have to protect it. If we lose it, we lose everything.”

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Kaelyn Lynch

After studying abroad in South Africa, Kaelyn Lynch was inspired to continue a life of meaningful travel. She has since lived in Indonesia and Australia, pursuing her passions of conservation, community development, and writing. She is now volunteering at a monastic school in Burma and researching the relationship between religion and the environment.

Website: https://aflyinmyrice.wordpress.com

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