As the EarthRights School Myanmar students prepare to leave for their field work the mornings are starting earlier and the nights are ending later at the Earth Rights School (ERS) in Chiang Mai. Even though their nerves are kicking in, after three months of intensive training on human rights and environmental law, Environmental Impact Assessments, International Financial Institutions, rule of law, campaigning, and much more, they’re ready.
During the last ten days of classes we have focused on preparing for field work through research methods, interviewing, fact-finding skills, photo and video documentation. Each student has been working hard to develop a comprehensive field plan that serves as their guide when they head back to Myanmar this week to visit various development project sites across the to collect information on the environmental and human rights impacts on the communities.
The students’ research topics range from mining, special economic zone projects, a gas pipeline, and an oil refinery. For many of them, this will be their first time conducting interviews and documenting earth rights abuses. The students are eager to return to Myanmar to begin putting into practice the real reason they’re at ERS: to empower their communities with knowledge of their rights and the law so that they can participate in development decisions that affect them.
Looking back on when these twelve young men and women first showed up in Chiang Mai, it’s incredible how many changes I’ve already seen. They’ve gained confidence, become stronger critical thinkers, improved their English, and have somehow managed to become even more impassioned.
Their orientation week was particularly memorable and I was immediately struck by their commitment and seriousness as community advocates. During a trust-building activity, each student was asked to draw a “river of life” as a way to share their personal story of what life events had led them to ERS and to their dedication to defending human rights and the environment. Some students shared personal experiences of past suffering and trauma under Myanmar’s repressive military dictatorship, prior to recent reforms. All of the students told stories of how the changing investment climate in Myanmar and the country’s unrelenting drive for economic development was affecting their communities’ access to livelihoods, a clean environment, health, enjoyment of their culture, and the denial of a voice in decisions that have serious impacts on their lives.
It was an emotional session that I believe both highlighted shared experiences and allowed for a new appreciation of unique stories of resilience and inspiration.
When I spoke of the changes I had seen in the students to an ERS staff member who has been at the school much longer than I, she responded: “You think they’ve changed already? You just wait until they get back from their field work in two months. You’ll have a class full of experts on your hands!”
As teachers at ERS, our job is to design and deliver the tools and frameworks that can help our students work with their communities to participate in development processes and hold governments and corporations accountable for earth rights abuses. It is the students who go out and put their skills and knowledge into practice. This is a great group of earth rights defenders who will be a force to reckon with!
Selected Student Profiles
by Jessie Adler
Kyaw Thu’s field study will focus on land confiscation issues. He will collect data in communities who are facing forced relocation to make way for foreign investment projects. The development projects that are underway in these communities are unregulated, unlawful, and have already had negative impacts on the environment on which the villagers depend on for survival. He is hoping to use this data for an advocacy campaign in the future.
This project hits close to home for Kyaw Thu. His own village is facing a similar situation, so he has a full understanding of what is at stake. “I am a villager,” he explained to me. “We don’t need to buy vegetables or meat because we pick from the tree and we fish in the river…and the villagers are family.”
He describes a life of self-sufficiency, connection with the land, and family. This is the life that he himself knows, and hopes to defend with the skills he learned at the school and the knowledge he will acquire over these next few months in the field.
Tin Zar will study the health and environmental impacts of a development project, including loss of livelihood, access to clean water, and an increase in communicable disease. She plans to gather evidence on water pollution, soil erosion, and decline in fish species, as well as investigate the lack of community mobilization surrounding the development.
Grateful for the training she has received the past few months, Tin Zar feels ready to approach this project and believes she has the understanding of how to gather the information that is necessary for a successful campaign.
Most of all, she is excited to build the capacity of the community. There are presently no NGO’s or CSO’s working with the communities surrounding this project, and Tin Zar is concerned with the silence of the community members so far. While she understands the pressure that exists to stay quiet on this sort of issue, she is eager to educate the people so they are empowered to defend their rights.
Grace is focusing her field study on land confiscation in a community where many of her family members live. The area has suffered for almost a decade as they’ve seen their livelihood fade away as crops have diminished, and water pollution and deforestation have increased.
When Grace walked through ERS’ doors three months ago, she looked forward to gaining knowledge from the diversity of the students’ experiences, each one coming from a different part of Myanmar and able to offer unique and valuable insight that would inform her work when the time came to make change in her own community. The time has come, and she is confident she is ready to put that knowledge to the test.