A bitter land struggle is unfolding in northern Burma’s remote Hugawng Valley. Farmers that have been living for generations in the valley are defying one of the country’s most powerful tycoons as his company establishes massive mono-crop plantations in what happens to be the world’s largest tiger reserve.
The Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve in Kachin State was declared by the Myanmar* Government in 2001 with the support of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2004 the reserve’s designation was expanded to include the entire valley of 21,890 square kilometers (8,452 square miles), making it the largest tiger reserve in the world.
Today a 200,000 acre mono-crop plantation project is making a mockery of the reserve’s protected status. Fleets of tractors, backhoes, and bulldozers rip up forests, raze bamboo groves and fl atten existing small farms. Signboards that mark animal corridors and “no hunting zones” stand out starkly against a now barren landscape; they are all that is left of conservation efforts. Application of herbicides and the daily toil of two thousand either under paid or unpaid workers are transforming the area into huge sugar cane, tapioca, and jatropha plantations for biofuel
In 2006 Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s ruling despot, granted the Rangoon-based Yuzana Company license to develop this “agricultural development zone” in the tiger reserve. Yuzana Company is one of Burma’s largest businesses and is chaired by U Htay Myint, a prominent real estate tycoon who is running in Burma’s upcoming 2010 election.
Local villagers living in the valley farming subsistence and cash crops, mainly rice and fruit, have seen their crops destroyed and their lands confi scated. Confl icts between Yuzana Company employees, local authorities, and local residents have fl ared up and turned violent several times over the past few years, culminating with an attack on residents of Ban Kawk village in 2010. As of February 2010, 163 families had been forced into a relocation site where there is little water and few finished homes. Since then, through further threats and intimidation.