Plans to extend conservation zones in Tanintharyi region are currently made. The Lenya National Park located in the Tenasserim Hills in the South of Tanintharyi is one of a series of National Parks planned to be established over the coming years. However, a coalition of seven civil society groups, who call themselves the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT) have expressed severe concerns over the further expansion of top-down conservation zones, because they would threaten the rights of indigenous people and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the area . Founded in 2014, the group has evaluated the development and potential impacts of the Lenya National Park. After two years of research, they released a report in early 2018, entitled “Our Forest, Our Life” [see 1] that received wide press coverage [e.g. 2,3,4].
The Lenya National park was first proposed in 2002 to conserve the endemic and critically endangered Gurney’s Pitta bird. A proposal to further extend the protected area to the north followed in 2004. Altogether the proposed Lenya National Park, including the extension zone, would cover about 284,000 ha (see Project Details below, and 1,5). For years, the plans did not advance further, and the government continued to grant industrial plantations and logging concessions within the designated area . However, efforts to establish the park have recently increased with the involvement of big conservation organizations such as Flora & Fauna International (FFI) and the support of international agencies such as IUCN [1,6]. While the civil society alliance CAT emphasizes the need to maintain and protect the unique habitats and species in Tanintharyi region - a global biodiversity hotspot - the report argues that the top-down, centralized approach to conservation of the Lenya Forest, pursued by the Myanmar government and FFI, “poses a high risk for indigenous Karen communities” [1, page 18].
The Lenya National Park is located within the ancestral territory of indigenous Karen communities, called Tanawthari in Karen language . According to the report, the proposal dismisses the role of indigenous people in maintaining biodiversity. Furthermore, it has been set up without the free prior informant consent (FPIC) of local communities who would be directly affected . Despite several visits of FFI to the area, most of the villagers remain unaware of the project, states the report, “they only explained vaguely about forest conservation without informing the community on plans to establish the park and the implications this may have for them“ [1, page 21]. The civil society groups fear potential human rights violation through the establishment of the park as Karen communities could be evicted and disposed from their ancestral lands without having obtained FPIC .
About 25 villages, located in the peripheries of the park, would lose access to important forest livelihood resources, including medical herbs, vegetables, and many other forest products. At least a further 13 villages, home to 2,470 people, are located inside or directly at the border of the Park, of which 9 are predominantly Karen villages. They have their agricultural lands located inside the proposed park and have lived from shifting cultivation, betelnut orchards and fruit gardens for generations. Some of the villages were formally established no less than 200 years ago .
During the civil war and armed conflict that hit the region heavily during the 1980s and 1990s, several villages were severely impacted and destroyed. Consequently, many people fled into the jungle or to neighbouring Thailand . Following the 2012 ceasefire agreement, these IDPs begun to return to their original villages, however, they will not be able to do so once the area is turned into a conservation enclosure, argues the civil society alliance. According to their report, the establishment of conservation areas in post-conflict zones denies the IDPs their right to return home and undermines the terms of the ‘interim arrangements’ of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) .
Mobilizations against the Lenya National Park have emerged and are led by the CAT alliance who insists the plans “must not go forward without the Free Prior Informed Consent of the local people” . To secure prospects for future peace, the civil society groups demand that all large-scale protected area plans must be halted, until ”a comprehensive peace deal is signed, laws and policies respect customary tenure rights, and the right of return to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and refugees has been guaranteed” [1, page 5].
Roughly about 80% of the world’s biodiversity lies in indigenous territories  and many studies suggest that a key way to protect it is by securing indigenous people’s tenure claims [see e.g. 8,9]. Instead of a top-down large-scale conservation approach driven by international conservation organizations, groups call for a conservation approach centred and led by indigenous people and their cultural practices that have maintained biodiversity for centuries (see proposed alternatives, below).