PAUNGLAUNG VALLEY, Shan State — Since January, approximately 8,000 residents in central Burma have been forcibly displaced from their homes and farmland to make way for the Upper Paunglaung Dam, a massive hydropower project being developed by a consortium of Chinese, British and Swiss firms in cooperation with the Burmese government.
The evicted villagers of the Paunglaung Valley, who mostly belong to ethnic minorities, have been forced by authorities to resettle on barren hillside sites above the valley. Many said they had received little compensation for their loss of land and homes.
“In the beginning [before displacement] we just asked the Hydropower Department to replace the land we’ve lost. But they have not. They should listen to the local people, the farmers. They should replace the land and houses that we have lost,” said Teh Ley, a member of Htin Ba Gone village, now displaced in Meli.
At the Meli relocation site, evicted residents from six different villages have been thrust together, separated from their ancestral communities and farmland by the chaos of the resettlement process and a lack of available land.
Though the farmers, who are ethnic Karenni, Pa-Oh and Burman, are still able to access their riverside crops until the flood gates close, a date informally set for June 2014, the displacements have already had a drastic impact on local livelihoods and the social fabric of valley communities.
Kyaw Myint, the chairman of Kanhla, a Karenni village located in the middle of the dam’s flood zone, expressed his frustration: “This compensation, which is supposed to cover moving our homes, the loss of our farmlands, our paddy fields and plants, this is not enough! Not enough to build a house, to cultivate farmland. This is very expensive farmland.”
The Paunglaung Valley is a roughly 23-km (14-mile) stretch of fertile land cradled in the rugged, sparsely populated Pinlaung Hills of southwestern Shan State. The Paunglaung River flows through these hills as it winds west across the Shan Plateau before joining the Sittaung, one of Burma’s major rivers, in the plains east of Pyinmana.
On the river’s journey between the steep ravines of the plateau, the Paunglaung Valley cleaves open the mountainous landscape revealing a 5,000-acre (2,000-hectare) stretch of fertile riverside farmland that for centuries has been home to an ethnically diverse agricultural community now numbering roughly 8,000 people.
Construction of the Upper Paunglaung Dam on the river here has been ongoing since 2004, with power from its two 70-megawatt turbines scheduled for Burma’s capital Naypiydaw, located some 50 kilometers away, by 2015.
The project is being constructed with the support of AF-Colenco, a Swiss engineering giant, and Malcolm Dunstan Co. Ltd, a UK consulting firm specializing in roller-compacted concrete dams. China’s Yunnan Machinery and Export Company has agreed to provide machinery and equipment for dam.
Malcolm Dunstan has received heavy criticism in the past for its involvement in the highly controversial Ta Sang Dam and the Yeywa Dam in Shan State.
However, the firm continues to operate in the country, where a lack of environmental laws or sound institutional framework regarding investment projects means there are no safeguards to mitigate or prevent the heavy social and environmental impacts that hydropower projects often have.
Burma’s National Commission on Environmental Affairs, the main body tasked with environmental protection, has only drafted two environmental laws in the space of two decades, both of which are still awaiting government approval.
Although many Western nations, including the 28 countries of the European Union, have opted to suspend sanctions in light of recent political changes in Burma, projects such as the Upper Paunglaung Dam indicate that Naypyidaw continues to implement large-scale investments without much regard for the heavy social impact on rural, ethnic populations.
The Upper Panglaung project has suffered numerous delays since its start in 2004 and is scheduled to come online seven years later than expected. Throughout this lengthy construction process, local residents have been excluded from decision-making and left devoid of consultations or information regarding the impacts of the dam.
Starting in October 2012, families from the 23 villages in the flood zone were told that they had to vacate their land and move to the hillsides above the valley. A few months later, in early 2013, the No. 1 Hydro Implementation Department began forcing villagers to sign away their land and relocate.
The speed at which villagers have since been forced to relocate, along with the lack of arable land and potable water at relocation sites and the absence of basic infrastructure and government facilities, is now threatening the survival of resettled communities.
The government’s Department of Hydropower Implementation (DHPI), under Deputy Director General Thaung Han, is in charge of the Upper Paunglaung project as well as the relocation of valley residents.
According to the Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY), a Karenni community-based organization that has been following developments at the site, agreements were reached between the riparian communities and officials from DHPI who promised that six months’ advance warning would be given to villagers before they had to relocate.
This agreement was reneged on early this year when government officials began applying increasing pressure on villagers to vacate their land.
KNGY Chairman Khun Bedu lamented the DHPI’s inability to hold true to its agreement. “They said they would give them time to move, but they didn’t. They said they would give them compensation before they moved, but they didn’t,” he said.
Thaung Han and other officials under Naypyidaw’s No. 1 Ministry of Electric Power are alleged by villagers to have threatened those refusing to relocate with retaliation by the armed forces.
“We were warned that unless we moved to another place, we wouldn’t receive any compensation and we would be moved by force, empty-handed,” explained representatives of Kanhla village, who preferred not to be named in fear of retribution by authorities.
Bereft of consultation or meaningful participation in the hydro dam’s construction, local communities of the Paunglaung Valley have been marginalized from the benefits of this multi-million dollar project and now face a potential food crisis.
“Food is more important than electricity. We cannot rely on electricity for our livelihoods. We can stand on our own two feet as farmers, but without farms we cannot,” said Zaw Lin, secretary of the village of Kon Shinhi.
Officials from the Hydropower Department have made a host of promises to villagers regarding new infrastructure, such as roads and schools. Although conditions vary at the relocation sites, all are without adequate farmland and in the coming seasons many residents will face food insecurity.
In the village of Meli, authorities have built a new school but there are no teachers, and at other sites many are provided with small quantities of water unfit for consumption.
Only some winding dirt tracks connect the numerous resettlement sites scattered for miles across the hillside. After weeks of monsoon rains, many sections of road have eroded, leaving students cut off from schools, farmers without access to markets, and communities unable to communicate.
In January, Thaung Han told Burmese media that communities resettled from the Paunglaung Valley would benefit from “development” and “better living conditions” in the new mountainside villages.
Asked what he thought of the government’s claims, Karenni villager Kyaw Myint replied, “The government said they are bringing us development life style, but how can we develop if we can’t eat, if we don’t have time to sow crops?”
Alec Scott is an intern who is conducting research for the Burma Campaign UK.