Major foreign investment projects—such as power plants—are development made visible, which pleases local political leaders. They hold out the promise of local employment plus improved local access to electricity; and tend to require massive imports from the investor’s country. This, in turn, pleases the investor’s government.
Together, these forces can combine to override issues of social justice and bring ‘more pain, less gain’ to local communities. This case study highlights one such case, and Paung Ku’s ongoing role in supporting and facilitating grassroots learning and action for sustainable development. The case study demonstrates the ways in which Paung Ku’s work in reflection and learning, accessing resources and linkages and networking combine together to reinforce and enhance existing civil society capacities.
Tigyit, a small town in Southern Shan State, is home to several ethnic minorities that used to survive mainly through subsistence farming. Near to the famous Inle Lake, Tigyit changed beyond recognition in the early 2000s when it became home to Myanmar’s largest open cast coalmine and coal-fired power plant. The coalmine and power plant were initiated as a joint venture between the Myanmar government and national investors with backing from Chinese investors, with coal mining and power plant technology imported from China.
Hundreds of acres of farmland were seized for the development and two entire villages (mainly inhabited by ethnic minority Pa-Oh people) were forced to relocate. No compensation was paid, nor assistance given. The power plant constructed did not meet Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standards.
After the plant began operation, local communities began reporting health problems including respiratory trouble, skin rashes and poor reproductive health due to polluted air. Air, soil and water were also found to be contaminated through poor waste management and crops were affected. These concerns were initially ignored but, in 2014, the plant was temporarily shut down. Reasons given for the temporary closure include both the effect of local campaigns and ‘poor engineering, [which meant] the two 60 megawatt turbines were not producing the targeted amount of electricity’ (Tigyit communities and Pa-Oh Youth Organisation, 2018).
In 2015 the plant project was handed over to a new Chinese investor, China’s Wuxi Huagaung Electric Power Engineering. The new company initiated public consultation meetings with affected communities and, at these meetings, made public commitments to fulfil their corporate social responsibilities and to safeguard the health and social wellbeing of local communities, as well as the environment. The company also declared that it would uphold Myanmar’s Environmental Conservation Law and maintain World Bank standards for major power projects.
These commitments appeared to be being honoured in 2016 when the engineering company hired E-Guard Environmental Services Company Ltd in 2016 to undertake an environmental, social and health impact assessment of the power plant. The assessment report was not made public but the plant began re-operating in June 2017, on what was called a ‘test run’. The test run has now lasted for more than a year but the assessment results are still not publically known.
The story retold by CSOs
When the mine and power plant were first developed, communities in Tigyit and the surrounding areas knew little about the international coal mining industry; national and international environmental and social standards for mining projects; sustainable energy production; corporate social responsibility; or collective campaigning to combat injustice. But they learned quickly.
Drawing on the pre-existing strengths and capacities of ethnic minority organisations in the area—Tigyit and southern Shan State are home to a number of ethnic minority communities including Shan, Taungyo, Danu, Pa-Oh, Kayah, and Einthar, as well as Bamar people—activists carried out research into the effects of the coal mine and power plant. In 2011, the Pa-Oh Youth Organisation and Kyoju Action Network published the report ‘Poison Clouds: Lessons from Burma’s Largest Coal Project at Tigyit’.
Funded by the Burma Relief Centre, the report detailed findings including evidence of ‘air and water pollution threatening the agriculture and livelihoods of nearly 12,000 people… [with] 50% of the population suffering from skin rashes’ (Pa-Oh Youth Organisation and Kyoju Action Network, 2011). The report also noted that ‘local people have no way of knowing if any environmental protection plan has been submitted to the Mining Ministry for the Tigyit coal project’, despite the Myanmar Mines Law 1994, which stated:
It is a requirement for all large scale mining projects … undertake Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as part of their feasibility study and foreign companies [must] either follow the World Bank standards or standards not lower than those existing in their countries. (Myanmar Mines Law, cited in Pa-Oh Youth Organisation and Kyoju Action Network, 2011).
After producing the report, these activists approached Paung Ku for assistance in continuing and extending their campaign to protect the basic health and livelihoods rights of those living near Tigyit. In 2012, a Paung Ku Program Officer worked alongside community activists to help them complete a stakeholder analysis and identify existing strengths and capacities held within communities around Tigyit. Together, they also brainstormed ways of getting villagers’ voices heard. As a result, activists applied for a small grant to re-print the ‘Poison Cloud’ report in Burmese and to distribute it as part of a broader grassroots awareness raising campaign. Paung Ku also helped Pa-Oh Youth Organisation to organize a launch of Poison Clouds that gathered national and international media attention.
Tigyit activists joined Myanmar’s growing informal network of environmentalists and sustainable development campaigners (many of whom are Paung Ku partners), and met activists in Kayin and Mon States that were also suffering from development projects implemented without transparent impact assessment processes. Cross-learning visits were organized with Paung Ku support and Tigyit activists learnt about promising local, national and regional theory and practice in environmentally sustainable development and human rights. They heard about Thailand’s mandatory integration of grassroots Community Health Impact Assessments (CHIAs) into the EIA process; saw that the Mon and Kayin activists had used CHIAs to great effect in their own campaigns; and joined with Mon and Kayin activists to develop a joint project to extend the implementation of CHIAs in Myanmar. Paung Ku supported this plan and helped organize CHIA training for representatives from the diverse ethnic groups living in and around Tigyit.
These people became, in turn, respected local resource persons: able to communicate with and learn from their own communities as well as sharing their learning with a broader Myanmar network of activists opposing unsustainable development projects. These combined community-led efforts to document and publicise the negative effects of the coalmine and power plant have been credited with resulting in the 2014 shutdown, but activists did not rest on their laurels.
A rolling program of training Tigyit community members in CHIA continued (coordinated and supported by Paung Ku) and, in 2015, a Tigyit community representative participated in “The first ASEAN Conference on Impact Assessment and Mitigation” held in Chaing Mai, Thailand. In addition, Paung Ku sent more Tigyit community representatives to a Community Health Impact Assessment workshop run by Thai experts. This in turn resulted in exchange study tours between Myanmar and Thailand.
The re-activation of the mine and power plant has galvanized community members once again. As soon as the test run was announced, a statement calling for the total shutdown of the power plant, compensation for problems experienced and development of a local development framework ‘based on local benefit, local management and local decision-making’ was issued. The statement noted:
During the past ten years, local people have suffered from environmental problems, community divisions, farming problems due to loss of lands and soil erosion, water shortages, difficulty in travelling, and health problems, including high blood pressure, headaches, premature and underweight births, and skin diseases. Now, instead of solving these problems, the authorities are planning to restart the plant, despite the fact the project is clearly a failure, due to poor management, bad decision making, and poor technology (Tigyit Communities and Pa-Oh Youth Organisation, 2018).
A second report detailing the challenges with the plant, and the lack of any transparent impact assessment process, was also launched.
In March 2018, a meeting to develop strategies to take further actions against the company and investors was coordinated by Tigyit civil society activists, Paung Ku, Sustainable Green and Justice Network and Earth Right International. At the meeting, local communities presented again about the ongoing health issues experienced. Strategies for continuing to campaign against the mine and power plant were developed and an action plan agreed.
Drawing on all that was learnt in the first campaign against the mine and power plant, community members and other environmental activists will initiate a petition calling for release of assessment report findings. Community members will also be involved collecting samples of air, soil and water to test for ongoing contamination, as well as observing and reporting evidence of environmental and health impacts. A list of potential supporting networks and organisations was developed. Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) from Shan State (another Paung Ku partner) is going to do the pollution test and ALARM will help the community to prepare the report in support of technical expertise.
Ko Sai Htoo, Tigyit activist and community mobilizer, reflected on Paung Ku’s role in supporting civi society learning and action:
‘I am happy so long as Paung Ku is with us. Because of Paung Ku support and its engagement with us, we were able to really dig out the problems faced, reflect on our situation and pull together all of the different villages and ethnicities that were badly affected by this development project. In the beginning we had little confidence, limited experience and very few connections. Paung Ku was our foremost partner, linking us with experts who knew about these issues as well as with other communities that were being affected by such projects across the country. We could also get small grants from Paung Ku.
They helped us to enable the Tigyit community in articulating and asserting their rights, by words and by deeds. We hope Paung Ku will keep on helping Tigyit with their committed efforts.’
Photo credit to – TNI