Oil palm plantation in South Myanmar conflict zone wreaks havoc on local communities and forests

20.01.2017

A report released by a coalition of local and international NGOs this month examines the negative impacts of oil palm plantations in south Myanmar conflict zones, using the controversial Myanmar Stark Prestige Plantation (MSPP) project in Tanintharyi as a case study. 

Oil palm companies have been awarded more than 1.8 million acres of concessions in the area and have also been allowed to cut High Conservation Value (HCV) forest, a result of poor land use planning.

MSPP set up its 38,000 acre, $36.75 million oil palm project in the Myeik District of Tanintharyi in 2011. However, according to the report, a lack of transparency in the area makes it difficult to establish the actual size of the concession, with a project signboard erected by MSPP saying the concession is 42,200 acres, while a company map from 2015 shows a concession boundary of an even greater size, at 49,227 acres. 

The concession overlaps with more than 38,900 acres of community and agricultural lands belonging to four villages, incorrectly classified as ‘vacant land’ by the Central Government.

The area has seen more than six decades of civil war between the government and the Karen National Union (KNU), and has caused severe trauma to indigenous populations, including several human rights offences inflicted on them by the Myanmar army. 

A ceasefire agreement was signed in 2012. Currently, the villagers living within the concession boundaries are under the joint administration of the Myanmar Government as well as the KNU, which has reportedly resulted in both bodies using civilians as scapegoats to shift the blame of the plantation’s impacts. 

Villagers have been unable to register their lands with the Myanmar Government or the KNU due to the civil war, the resulting displacement their communities have suffered and lack of land tenure security.

The report is a result of 18 months of research by local civil society organisations, and draws on interviews with people directly affected by MSPP’s activities. Highlights:

  • Since 2011, MSPP has cleared more than 6,000 acres of land, including the betel nut and cashew orchards historically used by villagers for their livelihoods. This has caused several families to fall into high levels of debt and forced many to accept day labourer jobs at low wages.
  • Run-off from chemical fertilisers and pesticides used by the Company for growing oil palm has polluted local water sources, causing dysentery and skin irritations among villagers as well as cattle deaths. No fair compensation has been offered by the Company.
  • MSPP has violated domestic land law. There is no evidence that the MSPP has acquired the relevant land use permissions from the Central Committee for the Management of Vacant, Fallow or Virgin Lands. No public notification processes were followed.
  • MSPP has violated international human rights principles by failing to follow Free Prior and Informed Consent principles enshrined in UNDRIP.
  • In July 2016, the body charged with monitoring complaints in the ceasefire region held a meeting to discuss the MSPP concession, following a request by an impacted community. A temporary suspension order issued by the Tanintharyi Township Police was sent to MSPP as a result of this discussion. The letter requires the company to suspend operations until it has properly negotiated with villagers and resolved the land dispute.
  • A total of 13 villages have been affected.

The project’s major investor is Malaysia-based Prestige Platform, with a 95% stake in the MSPP plantation. Prestige is a subsidiary of Glenealy Plantations, which in turn is owned by the Malaysian giant, Samling Group. 

Glenealy was established by Samling in the 1990s to set up oil palm plantations in deforested areas of Sarawak, later expanding into Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The remaining 5% is owned by Stark Industries, whose Malaysian owner has ties with military and business elites. Both Samling and Glenealy have been accused of numerous human rights and environmental abuses.

Maybank, the Malaysian bank that funds the MSPP project, is financed by several international entities, including the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, European and North American pension funds and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

The authors of the report have called for a moratorium on expansion of existing oil palm concessions until adequate safeguards to protect environment and human rights are in place, and a moratorium on investment in large-scale projects in conflict areas until establishment of strong governance mechanisms and an inclusive and meaningful peace accord.

The report also calls on the project’s financier, Maybank, to divest from the Samling Group and for increased diligence on part of the bank’s European, North American and Japanese partners to ensure their investments are not indirectly financing Samling and its subsidiaries.

Myanmar lost more than 15 million hectares of forests and wooded land between 1990 and 2015. More than 70 per cent of the country’s population depends on forests for their livelihood

You can read the full report here.

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