This section is structured using the two research questions. Insights from the literature review are cited; all other information is based on our own empirical work.
How Actors’ Interactions Shape Land-Use Changes
In the following, we investigate the action situations related to the three most important land-use changes in terms of impact and spatial extension: (1) implementation of the protected public forest TNR, (2) conversion to oil palm and (3) conversion to rubber and mixed-crop plantations.
Implementation of the Protected Public Forest TNR
Implementation of the protected public forest TNR was a contested project, mainly shaped by actor interactions involving the government’s forest department, oil and gas companies, the military and the KNU—all campaigning with different claims on land. Villagers and NGOs became involved only in the later stages.
In 1996, the forest department officially recognised the TNR to conserve a recognised biodiversity hotspot based on the 1992 Forest Law and the 1995 Forest Policy, but they could not formally establish it until security and financial concerns were settled. At the time, the wider area was largely controlled by an ethnic political organisation, the KNU, which claimed sovereignty over the area and disapproved the establishment of the TNR. Forest department staff could only start to implement the protected area once the military gained control and created a ‘safe’ environment in the conflict area.
However, it is most likely that the military’s activities were not primarily aimed at biodiversity conservation, but at control of the land in the region for economic activities and territorial sovereignty (Barbesgaard 2019; Woods 2019). In particular, they protected oil and gas companies (Total, PTT-EP, Petronas), which started to take up business in the region in the 1990s to explore and extract off-shore natural gas for export to Thailand.
Oil and gas company activity was also critical for solving the financial issues. To compensate the Myanmar government for the construction of pipelines crossing the biodiversity-rich forests (right of passage) and to tackle reputational risks—the companies have been accused of collusion in human rights abuse—they agreed to finance the TNR through a public–private partnership based on a voluntary contract (Pollard et al. 2014). According to our interviews, villagers were not involved in the decision to establish the TNR. They were only informed later in the course of the TNR implementation.
The government transition and the cease-fire agreement of 2011/12 influenced the TNR-related focal action situation in two ways. First, the improved security situation allowed the forest department to further implement the TNR rules at the western park boundaries, thereby strengthening the claim for conserving biodiversity. For patrolling the deeper forest, however, the TNR rangers need to coordinate their patrols with the KNU as a matter of respecting the cease-fire agreements, because at the present time, the KNU still holds sole control over large parts of the TNR area including several Karen villages that lie within the protected area. Having their own perspectives on sustainable land management (2015 Land Use Policy), the KNU does not accept the TNR rules defined by the Myanmar government and continues to allow the use of the area for subsistence and commercial crop production. Second, community rights, already formally established in the 1995 Forest Policy, became more widely known and implemented. In 2013, an international NGO aiming to empower local people for community-based sustainable forest management started to support the villagers in applying for community forestry certificates. These certificates allow for communal uses for 30 years, and since a law revision in 2016, also for minor commercial uses.
Conversion to Oil Palm Plantations
The conversion from forest, shifting cultivation and perennial plantations of cashew and other crops to oil palm monoculture was mainly driven by the former military government’s self-sufficiency policy and palm oil companies’ business interests (crony companies and smaller regional companies). It was highly disapproved by other actors such as local villagers and the KNU. Further actors such as the regional government, CSOs and foreign aid providers became relevant in recent years.
The self-sufficiency plan was intended to reduce the country’s dependency on imported products and to satisfy the increasing demand of the domestic population for cheap edible oil (Woods 2015). To implement this plan, the government granted oil palm concessions to crony companies. Our research shows that, in most cases, villagers were not involved in the oil palm development and had resentments against the companies. Being extraordinarily poor and heavily affected by still ongoing military oppression, villagers often did not dare to oppose the companies because they were afraid of their relationship with the military. The KNU also strongly disagreed with the oil palm expansion, but they could not stop the development either due to the military’s superior power. In some other cases, smaller regional companies or entrepreneurs applied for small- to medium-scale land-use permits to establish an oil palm business of their own accord. In these cases, the companies and local villagers usually respected each other’s activities.
The government transition of 2011 brought one new development to the oil-palm-related action situation. In 2016, the Regional Chief Minister created multi-stakeholder platforms (MSP) that aimed to review the oil palm concessions and to redistribute uncultivated land. The MSP is facilitated by the foreign aid and central government supported OneMap project. The MSP has—for the first time since the outbreak of civil war many decades ago—brought actors from different societal factions to one table: government representatives of various departments, palm oil companies, CSOs, village representatives and the KNU. While concessions have been revoked in a few cases, the multi-stakeholder process is highly challenging due to the multiple claims of the actors involved and currently seems to be blocked. This might also be an indication that the former power relationships still largely persist (for more information see Bächtold et al. in this special issue).
Conversion to Rubber and Mixed-Crop Plantations
The Myanmar government also played an important role in the conversion to rubber monoculture and mixed-crop plantations (mainly cashew and betel nut but also other crops such as lime or cacao), but in contrast to the other two land-use changes, villagers and smaller regional companies and entrepreneurs from nearby towns also played a key role in and welcomed the conversion.
Once the most severe phases of the civil war with food insecurity, lack of transport and market access, as well as widespread violence had subsided, local communities started to complement their subsistence-oriented farming activities with commercial activities to increase their income and satisfy their livelihoods. But it was only in around 2005/2006 when the Myanmar government pushed the rubber market in the context of their 2000–2030 Master Plan for the Agriculture Sector and abolished the government quotas that increasing numbers of villagers and entrepreneurs from nearby towns engaged in the business—until then, 45% of private harvest was reserved for the government (Woods 2015). Entrepreneurs were attracted due to the great promise of the crop (it was perceived as ‘white gold’, even though it did not turn out as such later) and the easy access to land. Unlike oil palm, rubber was not regulated through concessions but through different mostly customary land rights and the KNU land policy. Entrepreneurs generally accepted these rights and policies. Some villagers acted as land brokers and unofficially organised the land deals. As a consequence, within only a few years, land turned into a pricey and scarce resource.
The government transition of 2011 fostered a veritable production boom, through which shifting cultivation was mostly abandoned (at least in the government-controlled areas). This was for two reasons: first, the decrease in armed conflicts enabled the villagers to regain mobility as they could access their plots and the market places again due to better security; second, the legal reforms replacing the customary-dominated land tenure system with formal land certificates created a legal land market (Kenney-Lazar et al. 2018; Woods 2015). Land users can obtain land use certificates (e.g. Form 7) if they can prove that they cultivate crops on their land. This encouraged many villagers to convert shifting cultivation systems into permanently cultivated cropland. Moreover, it is likely that entrepreneurs from nearby towns were motivated by rubber not only as a valuable commodity, but also as a land-claiming strategy in the context of land speculation against the background of the announced Dawei special economic zone strongly promoted by the governments of Myanmar and neighbouring countries. Indeed, only a few rubber plantations are professionally managed and none of the actors interviewed had succeeded in producing good-quality rubber or achieved a satisfactory income from rubber.
The Role of Land-Use Changes for ES and Human Well-Being
ES Supply and Use
The analysis of local actors’ perspectives showed that, compared with the 1990s, when the landscape in northern Tanintharyi was dominated by forest and shifting cultivation, today, the supply of many ES have declined while a few have increased (mainly commercial crops such as rubber, cashew, betel nut and lime). The general decline in the supply of regulating ES such as biodiversity, water flow and regulation of microclimate, as well as a decline in the provisioning of wild plants, fuelwoods and livestock can be explained by an overall loss of intact forest landscapes. Hence, it is directly attributable to the changing resource systems. But in other cases, new rules and regulations have narrowed villagers’ access to and use of ES in the remaining forests and also in company-owned oil palm plantations. Thus, the decline in ES supply is not only the consequence of the changing resource systems, but of the changing governance systems too.
The three land-use changes played different roles for ES supply and use. In the case of the TNR implementation, many regulating ES could be maintained through protecting the forest and vulnerable ecosystems. Forest cover is clearly higher within the TNR than outside, but satellite images also show various signs of logging and crop production activities inside the protected area, pointing to the fact that deforestation could not be stopped completely (Pollard et al. 2014). Provisioning ES related to subsistence use are also often still available, but due to the TNR regulations, they cannot be readily accessed any more by the local communities along the western boundary—with the exception of some community forest areas.
ES trade-offs caused by land-use changes are most pronounced for the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations, as their chemical-intensive management has particularly negative consequences for many regulating ES, such as water flow and biodiversity. Additionally, access to provisioning ES from oil palm plantations, such as firewood and livestock, are socially differentiated. While many villagers do not have access to them due to company regulations, company-related actors such as (mostly migrant) plantation workers do. The only ES that increased is commercial crop production for the companies. But, ironically, despite Tanintharyi Region being the most suitable region for oil palm cultivation within Myanmar, the climate and environmental conditions are not appropriate enough for effective oil palm production and yield. Thus, palm oil companies cannot compete with those in Malaysia and Indonesia. Consequently, the established oil palm plantations are not very profitable and the actually planted areas are often much smaller than the granted concessions.
The conversion from forest to rubber and mixed-crop plantations decreased the overall supply of ES, but it substantially increased the provisioning services of commercial and subsistence crop production. The cultural services also shifted. Having strong connections with nature, local communities attribute many cultural ES to forest ecosystems. But also shifting cultivation is deeply embedded in their culture, and more recently, they started to assign cultural values to rubber and mixed-crop plantations (e.g. betel nut) as they allow them to generate income and acquire a different way of life. Consequently, considering the conversion of forests/shifting cultivation into rubber or mixed-crop plantations, trade-offs between different ES seem almost balanced in the perspectives of local communities. Villagers can obtain more income from commercial crops as a solid and diversified subsistence base (except for rice). Nevertheless, while interviewees generally accepted a slight decrease in biodiversity, climate regulation and cultural services, limited water supply, which is affecting agricultural production and human well-being most directly, was considered at risk if forests in important water catchment areas are cut down.
According to the perspective of the villagers, the human well-being situation has generally improved since the land-use conversions started in the 1990s—but not necessarily to satisfactory levels and not for all people. Elements that improved included, in particular, life expectancy, bodily health including nutrition, bodily integrity including housing and security, options for education, free speech and living together as a family, as well as the capability to control their environment through access to land and income opportunities. However, many people still live under adverse conditions and struggle with basic livelihood issues. They also deplored lost access to land, water and forest resources.
The changes in human well-being can partly be explained through the changes in the land-use-related resource systems and ES. For example, deforestation reduced the water flows, which negatively affected crop production and drinking-water quality, which again negatively affected well-being related to human health and nutrition.
In many other cases, however, human well-being dimensions were improved or worsened through changes in the land-use-related governance systems (e.g. new use regulations) or the broader social, economic and political context. In particular, interviewees often highlighted the significance of the ending of the civil war. During the war, where the military and the KNU were fighting for sovereignty over the region to implement their claims on land, people heavily suffered and were deprived of many basic capabilities needed to lead a good life. They regularly had to hide in the forest, plantations were destroyed, public services such as clinics and schools were scarce, and free movement was impossible due to fighting, movement control, lack of infrastructure such as roads and few motorbikes and cars. Human rights violations were also reported. It was particularly challenging for the Karen villages, which suffered heavily from the military’s counter-insurgency activities. Hence, once the immediate violence threatening people’s lives and bodily integrity stopped, they could take up again basic activities such as accessing and cultivating their fields, visiting relatives and friends and the construction of infrastructure, such as roads, transport and electricity.
Investigation of how well-being was affected by the three land-use changes revealed diverse outcomes. The TNR implementation affected, in particular, villagers at the western park boundaries, as they were officially prohibited to use various forest-based ES. While villagers benefiting from commercial crops could compensate this loss more easily, people not owning land were affected more strongly. When the community forestry rights became more widely known and implemented through the help of an NGO and the TNR management itself, the situation started to improve again (but the community forestry products are still not ready to be harvested).
Conversion to oil palm plantations heavily affected the well-being of the people using these lands. While most concessions of crony companies were granted on land that official records classified as so called ‘waste land’ or reserved forest land, i.e. land that is officially not used for agricultural activities, interviews revealed that these lands were in fact often claimed by villagers for subsistence and commercial crop production, grazing or collection of wild plants or firewood. Hence, as a consequence of the oil palm concessions, villagers lost their lands and thereby their capability to achieve various land-based well-being dimensions such as nutrition, participation in the community life and control over their environment. Moreover, human rights violations have been reported.
Conversion to rubber and mixed-crop plantations, which were co-driven by the local communities’ struggle to generate income opportunities, led to an overall increase in human well-being, despite an overall decrease in ES. While most ES decreased, commercial crop production increased and thereby the villagers’ financial resources. As a consequence, people could substitute benefits they formerly received from the environment with other products. For example, while forest products such as fuelwood, timber, wild food and medicine became scarcer, people started to use concrete and metal to build their houses, and they were able to buy medicine and food on the market. This might also be the reason why we could not observe extensive negative effects from giving up subsistence rice production: villagers usually obtain enough money from the sale of their commercial crops and have a secured access to markets to buy rice.
Moreover, the increasing rush on land due to all three land-use changes has intensified land scarcity. Consequently, there is a widespread fear among villagers of losing their land or not being able to extend their agricultural fields for new family members due to the general land-rights insecurity. As work and income opportunities of local communities are still strongly based on agricultural activities, not owning land is a major challenge and affects many well-being dimensions.