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Tennasserim villagers stand against foreign palm oil project

A coalition of environmental organisations and activists released the "Green Desert" report on 12 January, 2016 in Rangoon. (Image: DVB TV)

The world’s unquenchable thirst for palm oil has left villagers in Tennasserim Division furious at a transnational project in their remote region.

At a press conference in Rangoon on Thursday, affected locals and activists released “Green Desert,” a documentary and report that details the plight of four villages displaced since Malaysian-owned Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation (MSPP) moved into Tennasserim Township, Myeik district, to commence palm oil production in 2011.

MSPP is a joint partnership between Malaysian firm Prestige Platform, which commands a 95 percent stake in the operation, and local outfit Stark Industries, which owns the remaining 5 percent.

However, locals say the impacts on their community have been anything but prestigious. Spanning the territory of four Karen villages home to nearly 4,500 people, residents say the project has been salt in the wound for people already suffering from displacement and insecurity — the result of more than six decades of fighting between the Karen National Union and the Tatmadaw.

Members of the affected Karen population say they’ve been unable to register ownership of their lands due to the long-running war between the ethnic army and the Burmese military. Much of the area was classified as “vacant” by previous governments, according to the activists.

Panelists on Thursday called for an immediate moratorium on all palm oil cultivation in their area, until land-grabbing cases are resolved and a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment is performed.

They also accused MSPP of operating without a valid licence, citing the initial concession licence granted by the Myanmar Investment Commission in 2011, one year before the Land Act was introduced, which updated the legal requirements.

Locals in Tenasserim Division protesting against the MSPP project. (Photo: Green Desert)

An independent activist involved in the environmental coalition told DVB that township police instructed MSPP to halt operations in July 2016, but that work on the plantation resumed in September when the company cited a letter of permission reportedly issued by divisional authorities.

“The company [MSPP] gave a letter to the township authorities saying they had permission from the regional chief minister.

“But we never saw the document granting permission … and another minister told us the chief minister never gave the permission,” said Tar Yar Maung.

According to the “Green Desert” report, MSPP has also destroyed swathes of orchards and farms.

“Since 2011, the company has cleared more than 6,000 acres, including the betel nut and cashew orchards villagers depend on for their livelihoods,” it reads.

The permit in question granted MSPP access to 38,000 acres of land, but according to the report a “project signboard erected by MSPP lists the concession areas as 42,200 acres.”

Geographic Information System mapping carried out by the coalition of 12 environmental organisations indicates that the true expanse of land claimed by the company is significantly greater.

The use of pesticides and associated chemicals has also spoiled locals’ drinking water and caused skin and other health problems within their communities, the report adds.

The Tennasserim Township residents are not alone in their call for a complete suspension of palm oil cultivation. In May 2016, environmental advocacy group Flora & Fauna International called on the newly installed National League for Democracy government to halt all palm oil production, citing the risk to “the last significant area of Sundaic rainforest on the Thai peninsula” and rare wildlife.

“Currently most plantations are clearing high conservation value forests, and many companies are even clearing land outside their concession boundary. That is why we are calling on the new government of Myanmar to declare a complete moratorium on oil palm development — that means no new forest clearing and no new licences issued — until we can be sure that these plantations are sustainable,” said Frank Momberg, FFI’s national programme director in Burma.

Despite an ambitious 30-year plan to become the region’s “oil bowl,” launched by the military government in 1999, palm oil yields in recent years have been disappointingly low.

Seemingly undeterred by the lacklustre performance of the crop, MSPP appears ravenous in its pursuit of the controversial resource. One local at the press conference said the company warned him that they would not receive any compensation bar the initial offering of between $100-$500 per acre.

Many rejected what they saw as an inadequate payout for their ancestral lands.

The MSPP project, worth over $36 million, encroaches not only on customary territory of ethnic communities, but also onto the boundary of Tanintharyi [Tenasserim]  National Park. The ongoing operation contravenes the framework of the non-binding United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Burma signed in 2007, including article 10, which safeguards indigenous populations from being forcibly removed or relocated from their lands.

Samlong Group and Glenealy Plantations, the parent companies of Prestige Platform, have both been accused of human rights abuses and poor environmental standards in past operations elsewhere globally.

The MSPP project is, in part, financed by Malaysia’s Maybank, which provided $124 million worth of bonds to Glenealy Plantations and is one of the top foreign banks operating in Burma.

Stark Industries, the local partner, did not respond to a request for comment.