The Heartland Foundation was formed in Lashio, northern Shan State in 2012 and has become a leading environmental conservation organization. Recently, it formed a watchdog team to monitor China-backed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, together with nearly 20 local civil society organizations. In particular, their efforts will focus on transparency issues, and the environmental and social impacts of the projects. The team is preparing to raise awareness among locals of China-backed projects that are soon to be implemented across northern Shan State.
The Irrawaddy’s reporter Nan Lwin spokes with U Aung Myo Htun, project officer of the Heartland Foundation in Lashio, about locals’ major concerns regarding the China-backed Muse-Mandalay railway project and its potential environmental and social impacts, and growing Chinese influence in northern Shan State.
Your organization and local civil society organizations recently set up a watchdog team to monitor China-backed BRI projects in northern Shan state. Can you tell me what your next move will be?
Northern Shan State lies in the most strategic location for Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects. Many crucial projects will be implemented in our state, especially the Muse-Mandalay Railway and two cross-border economic cooperation zones in Muse and Chinshwehaw.
We have formed a core team and six working groups including about 18 civil society organizations across northern Shan State. We will watch over all the Chinese projects under the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which is also a part of the [BRI].
We will carefully examine the activities of the projects, especially transparency issues, locals’ concerns, and the environmental and social impacts of the projects. Moreover, we will observe whether the projects benefit or harm locals.
The government and Chinese companies have embarked on many activities in northern Shan State related to the Muse-Mandalay Railway, including public consultations. What do you think about their activities?
We have already collected a lot of data regarding the railway. Recently, the EIA [environmental impact assessment] company did so-called public consultations in some major cities. As far as we have observed, their techniques are not systematic. They have neglected the most important tasks of a standard EIA.
Moreover, those who were consulted do not broadly represent the affected local communities. They only invited a few elderly people and local government officials [from the General Administration Department] from each affected village tract.
They focused on explaining the benefits of the projects and possible environmental impacts to people who were invited to the meetings. I believe the affected local people would feel left out of the EIA process. They have a right to know how the projects will impact the environment in their daily lives.
Literally, they were supposed to visit the affected villages so they can hear the actual voices of locals. They should explain directly to the local people. Visiting the people on the ground would keep locals well informed about the projects’ challenges and benefits.
Their activities show they have no intention of working on it carefully. That’s why we describe them as “so-called” public consultations.
What do you mean when you say the EIA company neglected the most important tasks of a standard EIA?
The most of important task of the EIA is to conduct an initial environmental examination. They need to do it. When I asked them, they had not done it yet. Whenever we ask about the technical parts and the details of the EIA process, they cannot answer properly. We asked questions about the environmental impacts, such as how many protected forests will vanish, how many watersheds will disappear and how they will respond to locals’ concerns and address local grievances. I think that at least they should have been able to answer those simple questions. Because the EIA company is responsible not only for determining the environmental impacts, but also for drawing up the terms and conditions for the project developers in order to avoid potential detrimental effects. But they did not. It has been quite surprising to learn that.
What are the locals’ major concerns regarding the Muse-Mandalay railway project?
Local people have various concerns. The majority of the people are worried about losing their homes, farmlands and water resources. Some people voiced concerns about losing natural resources and heritage places.
Moreover, armed conflicts are ongoing in northern Shan State. As a result, many people have been displaced from their homes in areas where the planned projects are to be implemented. They are scattered at the IDP [internally displaced person] camps in major cities. Those people worry that their homes and farmlands will be seized by the authorities in their absence. They fear they will lose their rights to discuss their concerns if the projects begin while they are living in IDP camps.
Moreover, the railway will be electric, which means the project will need a large supply of electricity. The most important question is, how will the electricity be supplied to the project? Will they build new dams? We already have many conflicts due to dam projects including China-backed projects in northern Shan State. We don’t want to lose more—including homes, farmlands and other natural resources—to dam projects. That outcome could once again fuel local negative sentiment toward Chinese projects in our state.
What are the major findings of local CSOs regarding BRI projects in northern Shan State?
The government has no transparency when it comes to BRI projects in northern Shan State.
Not only have they failed to publicize the list of BRI projects in Myanmar, but they also have yet to disclose the details of the CMEC MoU [memorandum of understanding]. So far, the locals know about the railway project through the Chinese surveyors and the EIA company. The locals only know there will be a railway project, but they don’t know the details. [But] the authorities will say that they have held public consultation meetings.
As I said, these are “so-called” public consultations, since the affected local people were not invited to the meetings. The officials did not visit the affected villages. And the consultations were carried out without the full participation of locals. Moreover, they did not provide proper information to people who attended the meetings. According to Myanma Railways, they have already chosen the railway routes and tracks. So, they should have revealed to the public facts such as how many villages will need to be displaced, how many farmlands could be seized, and how many protected areas and watersheds ruined.
We know that there are a lot of planned BRI projects in northern Shan State such as road upgrading projects, special economic zone projects and other logistics projects.
What are the possible environmental and social impacts of the Muse-Mandalay project?
Locals in northern Shan State have already suffered the social and environmental impacts of the Sino-Myanmar China oil and gas pipelines. They have not had a chance to voice their will and [discuss their] ordeals in the past. We all understand that pipelines and railway projects are very different. The impact of the railway will be bigger than the pipeline. As far as we know, they will construct 60 tunnels through the mountains. So the project will definitely destroy protected forests, mountains and natural resources. Moreover, our traditional livelihoods and ecosystems will be also ruined.
Chinese investment will also bring social problems. We need to carefully learn the lessons from other BRI host countries, especially countries that suffered due to grand infrastructure projects. A massive wave of migration from China will flow into our state. One of the biggest problems is human trafficking to China. We have been experiencing thousands of Myanmar women trafficked as brides to China every year. If the railway is completed, the trafficking problem will be hard to control. Besides, we already have a higher rate of drug abuse here because of Chinese migrants. We are afraid that drug abuse will be another problem created by the railway.
Do you think locals will gain economic benefits from the project?
It is hard to say whether we will benefit from the railway project. I believe that the project will have more benefits for Chinese investors than for locals. They will be able to transport their goods quickly, since they want to link with the Kyaukphyu SEZ, which is a gateway to the Indian Ocean.
Another important thing is natural resources; they are planning to drill the mountains and cut down protected forests. There is a lot of evidence that Chinese trucks carried all the natural resources—even soil—[that was unearthed by] the Myitsone [hydropower project in Kachin State] directly back to China. I am worried they will do the same with the railway project. It is very important that the government makes sure to control it. I am sure they have already taken soil samples during the feasibility process, so they know which mountains and places are abundant with natural resources, especially minerals.
The government need to put rules and regulations in the contract stating that the Chinese are not allowed to take our natural resources to China.
Ethnic armed groups frequently clash with the Myanmar military in northern Shan State. The railway will pass through the conflict areas. On the other hand, China is pushing the government very hard to implement the project. Do you think it is a good idea to begin the project before the government has made peace with armed groups?
In my point of view, since we have armed conflicts in those areas, the government should not implement mega-projects. When projects come before peace has been established, people suffer more. As I said, many people are now living in IDP camps. It is better to invite mega-projects after we have peace in northern Shan State. Our people are afraid of all the armed groups here. We are afraid of ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military. We are also afraid of Chinese influence here. Because it is growing, as their businesses have colonized every sector.
But, I know that whatever we say, they [the Myanmar and Chinese governments] will definitely implement the projects. They don’t care about our concerns.
You said Chinese influence is growing here. How?
Chinese migration has increased rapidly here since late 2010. They bought a massive amount of land under local names. Now, many downtown areas are all owned by Chinese families in Lashio. Local families have been moving to the outskirts of the town because of financial problems. The Chinese know we have a lot of natural resources that locals are not interested [in exploiting]. You see at least two languages—Chinese and Burmese—on all the signs and billboards in the town. Now, the Chinese language is more popular here. The restaurant culture has changed; now they are more focused on serving Chinese food than local Shan food.
Aside from the Sino-Myanmar Oil and Gas Pipelines project, Chinese are investing more and more in plantations such as sugar cane, corn, rubber and tissue-culture bananas across northern Shan State. Those plantations are run by Chinese investors under local names. The area occupied by corn plantations has been expanding rapidly here. More than 60 percent of the plantations across northern Shan State are owned by the Chinese or backed by China. They are also invested in mining, coal and hydropower projects.
What are the environmental and social impacts of Chinese investment in northern Shan State?
The main thing is a lack of transparency—they only work with powerful people here. There are environmental impacts from the projects. Rubber, corn, tissue-culture banana and watermelon plantations have been expanding gradually here. They are using insecticides, weed killers and fertilizers and disposing of them carelessly. This has led to the pollution of water supplies in these areas, in turn causing soil damage and killing livestock. The mining projects have destroyed ecosystems and water resources. A lot of forests have been cut down due to mining projects as well.
As a consequence, now we are suffering climate change. In the past, the weather in northern Shan State was cold about nine months of the year. Now, the weather is hot like Yangon or Mandalay, even in the winter. We are losing threatened species as the protected forests are being cut down.
Moreover, farmers have to change their plantation culture, based on Chinese demand. In the past, they only grew seasonal crops. Now, they are mono-cropping as the Chinese have persuaded the farmers to grow corn and watermelons, which are in high demand in their country. They have also pushed them to boost the quality of their crops and sell the farmers insecticides, weed killers and fertilizers. The mono-cropping culture damages the soil ecology, including depleting or reducing the diversity of soil nutrients. Within three to five years, farmers realized their traditional farmlands are no longer the same due to soil damage. They understand they can’t grow quality crops anymore, as the soil is already damaged. It leads the farmers to work for the Chinese-owned plantations and factories instead of working their own land.
Young people are also looking for an opportunity to work either in China or Thailand. In every village in Shan State, a large majority of young people are now working in China. It is sad to see that a large number of Chinese are flowing into the state while the natives are leaving for China. They have replaced the local [population].
They are running various factories such as [those producing] plastic sacks and fertilizers, as well as warehouses. They have also brought in Chinese workers as well. They produce materials that are not allowed in China due to the environmental impacts. So, we have suffered social problems such as a rising number of human trafficking and drug abuse cases.
Even though those are not mega projects, we have suffered enough. We can’t imagine what we will face when we allow them to implement mega projects.
You said Chinese influence in northern Shan state is already growing. How do you foresee the future of northern Shan State, with the implementation of BRI projects?
Chinese influence is not only growing in northern Shan State but also in the whole country. Of course, we have more than the other places because we are very close geographically. So, we are suffering more than the other places. Local traditions and culture have been gradually replaced by Chinese traditions and culture. The locals also rely heavily on them for income and jobs. The armed groups have very close relations with China. So, we—the locals—can’t strongly resist them [the Chinese], for both economic and political reasons. I am concerned that Chinese influence is growing more here as we are accepting more Chinese projects while there is no peace. I don’t want to say it, but—one day, who knows?—we could be recognized as one of their provinces.