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Empowering the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders in Myanmar

 

Written by Tahmid Hasan 

Underneath Myanmar's scarred surface, a narrative of exploitation, environmental degradation, and stifled opportunities for marginalized communities has long persisted. Yet from the shadows of this history emerges a transformative endeavor. With a shared vision to decolonize sustainability, Caritas Finland and CAFOD united to support a Myanmar-based organization in a project that empowers Myanmar's young leaders to champion environmental justice and sustainable living. This article uncovers the impact of this collaboration, which redefines the intersectional landscape of gender, power, and environmental justice and enables us to navigate the turbulent seas of Myanmar's changing political climate, exploring how innovation, localization, and adaptability breathe life into their mission amidst the nation's recent upheavals. 

 

In a land scarred by a history of exploitation and extraction, Myanmar bears the burden of environmental degradation and limited prospects for sustainable living. Marginalized groups, especially young women and men from minority ethnic backgrounds, endure the brunt of this reality. To exacerbate matters, frequent and severe natural disasters, from floods to cyclones and droughts, ravage their already vulnerable circumstances, leaving them with scant resources to cope or recover. Furthermore, these individuals find themselves excluded from decision-making processes and discussions to improve their living conditions and foster sustainable practices within their communities. 

 

However, the project faced another hurdle — Myanmar's rapidly shifting political landscape. Just a month after the project started, a military coup in February 2021, followed by mass protests and civil war, cast a shadow over the nation's pursuit of climate justice. For decades, Myanmar had been ruled by a military dictatorship that suppressed political opposition and imposed stringent control over the media and civil society. This stifling political context has significantly hampered the work of NGOs and civil society organizations, hindering their freedom to operate and limiting public participation in policymaking. The government's fixation on national security and stability further exacerbated matters, prioritizing economic development over environmental protection and fueling issues like deforestation and land degradation. The country-wide armed conflict escalated on October 27th, 2023. Intense fighting is now taking place, especially in the northern Shan state, Karen, Eastern Bago, and Kayah. The commodity prices are increasing rapidly, travel is restricted and many people have been displaced. 

 

To counter these challenges, a local NGO in Myanmar, Caritas Finland, and CAFOD embarked on a collaborative mission to decolonize sustainability and empower a new generation of environmental leaders, with a particular focus on safeguarding the rights and status of women and girls. Guided by a rights-based approach, the project aimed to bolster the capacity of civil society organizations and individuals to navigate the changing climate while upholding and promoting equality by implementing a diverse range of capacity-building activities, including leadership training, mentoring, exposure visits, seed funds, and technical support for young leaders. Furthermore, the project fostered dialogue by creating platforms for transformative discussions to enable stakeholders from diverse backgrounds engage in conversations with each other overcoming myths, prejudices, and misconceptions about one another. These dialogues promoted social cohesion and solidarity to strengthen Myanmar's civil society in the long run allowing communities to collectively address shared environmental challenges. 

 

The impact of Innovation, localization, and flexible design 

A country that ranked 147th out of 180 countries in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2020, Myanmar performed poorly on most of the environmental indicators like climate change, pollution emissions, and biodiversity. It earned a score of 25.1/100 in EPI 2020. This was a slight decrease from EPI 2018, where their score was 26.3, making it clear why Myanmar needs immediate action, focusing on areas that would improve its performance in these important indicators. Our interventions in Myanmar were focused on some of these areas that would improve Myanmar’s position on environmental consciousness by reducing its environmental impact, empowering marginalized communities, and enacting climate justice. 

 

However, implementing the project in Myanmar has been a challenging endeavor as decades of resource extraction, exploitation and political turmoil has thinly stretched the social fabric, calling for a flexible design that embraces local knowledge and practices. This flexible design has allowed the project to adapt to the unprecedent situations during Covid-19 pandemic, as well as, to the recent political upheavals. One of the stakeholders based in Myanmar mentioned, “the military government cares more about spending money and effort on armaments than on issues like pollution, so we can’t expect state cooperation. We tried to mitigate this issue by collaborating with duty-bearers and people who are locally influential, like village elders and community leaders.”  

  

The project's strategy comprises of three seamlessly interwoven domains of transformation:

1) empowerment and skill development 

2) dialogue and collaboration and

3) joint action for sustainability

Under the first domain, this project equips participants with a comprehensive understanding of sustainability, environmental justice, and leadership through a combination of training, mentoring, and exposure visits. These interventions are expected to develop a certain level of competency in sustainable living practices in the participants and empower them to deal with the effects of climate change. The second domain acknowledges the scarcity of platforms for knowledge exchange among youth, women, and various ethnic groups and facilitates discussions among stakeholders, dispelss preconceived biases, and promotes social cohesion with the provision of seed funds and technical support. The joint action for sustainability emphasizes action through researchand advocacy on pertinent issues such as deforestation, waste management, and land grabbing to advocate for change at various levels, from local to global. The project envisions a cyclical process where these domains reinforce each other, ultimately leading to strengthened civil society, enhanced gender equality, and climate change adaptation and mitigation at the grassroots level. 

  

Successes and Learnings of The Project 

Moving on from the changes, let’s take a look at some of the areas where we have seen some noticeable impact already. These are among many other approaches this project has taken toward change, and they exhibit only a fraction of the actual impact this project can have on rural Myanmar communities in the long run. All of our interventions in Myanmar accompany awareness programs, so even if any of the particular interventions show limited immediate impact, it will still leave some lasting impact on local communities and organizations.  

 

Impact of Organic Farming Initiative: Wellbeing of humans and non-humans  

Encouraging sustainable organic farming practices, i.e., an environmentally conscious agricultural approach that avoids synthetic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, among communities has been one of the core objectives of this project. Organic produce relies on natural practices such as composting, crop rotation, and biodiversity promotion to nurture soil health and support sustainable growth while being free from harmful residues, cause significantly less pollution, nurture biodiversity, and utilize indigenous knowledge and practices. While it can pose challenges like lower yields, its overall positive impact on the environment, health, and communities makes it a valuable and sustainable agricultural approach. 

 

To promote organic farming among the Myanmar localities, we arrange awareness programs to educate and inform the marginalized communities about hygiene, healthy farming practices, and the necessity to adopt eco-friendly methods. We also endorse farmers who are willing to move to organic farming by providing them with the relevant knowledge, technical support, and resources. One of the stakeholders in Myanmar said: 

"Our main goal here is to promote organic farming practices. And so far, we've tried to support local farmers willing to adopt these practices. This means helping them with knowledge, technical support, and training…However, organic farming takes more effort and capital to be effective, making the produce pricier and difficult to make profit from. So, we needed a marketplace where these farmers could sell their fresh and organic products with an appropriate price tag and consumers have the confidence in the quality and authenticity of the products they are buying. It would also allow farmers to sell directly to consumers, cutting the middleman. This peer-to-peer connection negates additional cost for both consumers and sellers, ensuring a sustained profit margin and satisfaction. This is what we call the social enterprise movement." 


The farming communities we've connected with do not only get support in organic farming; they also get the necessary exposure and experience to build up aware and knowledgeable communities and choose sustainable practices in other fields of life. The project’s approach toward promoting organic farming is aimed at being all-inclusive, making it a more attractive prospect for farmers, and the effects are clear as we find more and more farmers willing to take the chance and bring positive changes to their lives and their surroundings. 

 

Impact on Safe Drinking Water: 100+ Bio-sand Water Purifiers installed 

The drinking water crisis in Myanmar has been building slowly and has started to become apparent in recent decades. As rapid urbanization, pollution, and climate change took over the landscape, the challenges to ensuring a consistent supply of clean drinking water for the people kept growing. Whereas once the locals used water from natural sources like rivers and streams, industrial waste filled them with mercury and other pathogens. The demand for drinking water had to be met. Water purification companies have been sprouting up around the country for the last couple of decades. A measure that is sure to worsen the effect in the long run. 


In our efforts to ease the freshwater crisis, we have helped install more than 100 bio-sand water purifiers in the community schools and households. Once installed, these purifiers can remove pathogens and sediments present in water and supply safe drinking water for communities with zero expense for up to 80 years, making it an ideal long-term intervention. These purifiers can remove pathogens and sediments present in water, making it safe to drink. In the words of a community member, "these [bio-sand water purifiers] can function for up to 80 years with proper maintenance. So, these are sustainable. And the communities are saving lakhs of Kyats by not having to spend on drinking water as well as the installation of the purifiers.” 


Furthermore, along with the technology and resources, we also provide the needed knowledge and follow-up support after installation. Through our awareness and education programs, we have also nurtured an informed base of students and parents who are aware of the need for hygiene, sanitation, and conservation of natural resources. Together, the installations in community schools are only the beginning of a new journey where more and more people will know the stories behind the scenes, be aware, and ultimately be willing to reduce the pressure on groundwater, effectively adopting a sustainable approach to ensuring safe drinking water, and help CAFOD, and Caritas Finland in their conservation efforts in Myanmar. 

 

Conclusion 

The project's focus on decolonial approaches, combined with its commitment to environmental justice and sustainable living practices, holds significant implications for Myanmar's future. By challenging the prioritization of economic development over environmental protection and promoting the inclusion of marginalized voices in decision-making processes, the project contributes to the long-term development goal of strengthening Myanmar's civil society, particularly women and youth, in addressing environmental issues. Amid the complexities of Myanmar's societal landscape, this project takes on the role of an agent for localized change by combining skill development, dialogue, and practical action.  


As we reflect on the journey undertaken by the local NGO in Myanmar, a resounding message emerges – the dire need for collaborative climate justice projects. This undertaking, which empowers the next generation of environmental leaders, underscores the transformative impact of inclusive, community-driven initiatives. By embracing indigenous wisdom and local contexts, such projects not only address immediate environmental challenges but also sow the seeds of sustainable change in the long run. 




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