ENVIRONMENT: World Bank Faces Tiger Trap in Burma

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 12, 2010 (IPS) – As the World Bank embarks on its latest foray to protect Asian forests that are home to wild tigers, one of the continent’s iconic predators, a visible trap looms in military-ruled Burma.

The challenge for the Bank stems from a need to find a balance between its new interest as a conservationist – through its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) – and a policy that shackles the Washington DC-based international financial institution from being directly involved, including doling out financial aid, to the South-east Asian nation.

The GTI, which the Bank unveiled in June 2008, has identified a raft of measures to help the 13 Asian countries where the last of the estimated 3,200 wild tigers roam. This includes direct investments to preserve and expand the prevailing habitats of the endangered predator, which numbered about 100,000 a century ago.

The importance of Burma, or Myanmar, as it is also known, in this unique environmental drive is not lost on conservationists. The country is home to the world’s largest tiger reserve among the 13 tiger range nations, which include Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

What is more, the Bank’s efforts to tiptoe around the trap of being prevented from working in Burma will be in the spotlight this year due to the world’s first tiger summit to be held in Vladivostok in September. Robert Zoellick, the Bank’s president, is billed to co-chair the summit with the host nation’s prime minister, Vladmir Putin.

“We in the World Bank do not have the mandate to fund projects in Myanmar,” admitted Keshav Varma, leader of the GTI. “But we can provide technical assistance through United Nations agencies and other organisations.” In an interview with IPS, Varma also elaborated on other options to help Burma’s tiger population. “I think there are a lot of bilateral possibilities for Myanmar to tap. They can talk to India or other neighbouring governments.”

The Bank’s inability to work in Burma goes back to 1987, when the country was classified as having “non-accrual status” for failing to clear arrears in its loans. Until that time, the country had received an estimated 700 million U.S. dollars in development aid since 1956.

Varma’s admission of the Bank’s limits in Burma is echoed by Yuki Akimoto, co-director of the Tokyo-based Burma Information Network-Japan. “The shareholders of the Bank do not support the Bank providing assistance to Burma,” said Akimoto. “The United States, which is the largest shareholder and therefore with the largest voting power, is required by law to oppose any assistance from the Bank to Burma.”

But under the guise of providing humanitarian assistance, the Bank has in recent years tried to engage with the country.

“Despite the restrictions, the Bank in the past has found ways to provide assistance to Burma for projects or issues that could be spun as ‘humanitarian’ or otherwise relatively non-political,” Akimoto, who monitors the work of international financial institutions in Burma, said in an e-mail interview. “Saving wild tigers could be interpreted to be non-political and therefore not problematic, particularly if funds were not channelled directly to the regime.”

One organisation hoping for such a broad interpretation is the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has worked with Burmese authorities since the early 1990s to increase the population of the country’s wild tigers and other endangered species.

A crowning moment for the WCS was its ability to get official support to establish the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve (HVTR), the world’s largest such habitat covering some 21,802 square kilometres in the mountainous north-west of the country, close to the Indian border.

“The biggest problem working in a sanctions-hit country like Myanmar is mobilising funds for our programmes,” said Colin Poole, director for Asia programmes at WCS, referring to the punitive economic measures imposed on Burma’s junta since the mid-1990s by the U.S. government and the European Union. “We know the World Bank cannot be involved, but there might be other options to consider.”

While the WCS is unable to give an accurate estimate of the number of wild tigers in the Hugawng tiger reserve since its work began, it speaks approvingly of the official support it has received for its work inside Burma.

“The Myanmar government has showed a lot of commitment to conserve wildlife,” Poole said during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. “The setting up of the Hugawng Valley Tiger Reserve was not something we requested, but one that came from the country’s forestry department.”

Other conservationists are not as convinced. “Although the Myanmar government has indeed created the world’s largest tiger reserve much to the surprise and then applause by the international conservation community at large, in reality the HVTR remains a ‘paper park’,” noted Kevin Woods, who has been involved in environmental issues in Burma for nearly a decade. “It is only marked on a map, but in practice little conservation actually proceeds.”

As worrying is how the junta has exploited the land for economic activity after the Hugawng reserve was created. “The country’s largest agribusiness concession was granted, gold mining continues by companies at the expense of local miners who have been admonished by the government, and environmental rights abuses against local residents are reported,” Woods, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, explained in an e-mail interview.

“For all these reasons, I remain highly sceptical about sincere conservation efforts in Myanmar,” he added.

Among the ethnic communities affected by such projects are the Kachins, a minority in Burma who live in the Kachin state, where the Hugawng reserve is located. “There are lots of posters to be seen near the HVTR to help protect the tigers but that may not be enough,” says Lahpai Nawdin, editor of the Kachin News Group, based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “Gold mining has spread, land confiscation is expanding and there is large-scale logging, so the tigers may be extinct in the future.”

“INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) working in the HVTR work with the military and not with the local Kachin people,” he revealed in a telephone interview. “It is impossible to protect the tigers with that kind of relationship.”

The WCS’ Poole admits to the complexities on the ground. “Working there is difficult because of the number of ethnic minorities,” he said. “Part of the HVTR is in an area controlled by a Kachin (separatist) group (that has a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government), and part of it near the Indian border where we can’t go to.” (END)

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