Paul Sein Twa, an ethnic Karen environmentalist from eastern Myanmar, received the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize. (Photo: KESAN)
An indigenous Karen activist who spearheaded establishing a sprawling conservation zone in eastern Myanmar has been awarded the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Seeking to preserve both the environment and Karen culture, in December 2018 Paul Sein Twa led his people in setting up a peace park — a unique and collaborative community-based approach to conservation — in the Salween River basin.
The basin is a major biodiversity zone and home to the indigenous Karen people, who have long sought self-determination and cultural survival. The new park represents a major victory for peace and conservation in Myanmar.
Sein Twa received the prestigious prize along with five other grassroots environmental activists from the Bahamas, Ghana, Ecuador, Mexico and France on Nov. 30.
Dubbed the “Green Nobel Prize,” this award is given annually to environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continents.
Sein Twa, 47, grew up along the Thai-Burmese border and has spent his life navigating the zones of conflict. He is deeply connected to the physical, spiritual and cultural landscape of the Salween River basin and has dedicated his life to preserving its land and traditions, which are deeply intertwined for the Karen people.
He co-founded the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) in order to protect the environment and culture of the Karen community.
In 2016, Sein Twa and KESAN worked with Karen civil society groups and the local government to mobilize community support, holding public consultations, seminars and educational meetings with 348 villages representing some 68,000 people.
On Dec. 18, 2018, the Karen people officially declared the creation of the Salween peace park to be managed by the local community. The 1.35-million-acre park includes 27 community forests and three wildlife sanctuaries, protecting endangered populations of tigers, Sunda pangolins, black and sun bears, gaur and hoolock gibbons from extractive industries and development projects.
The park’s borders were specifically designed to include proposed dam sites, including the Hatgyi Dam, in an effort to stem the impact of destructive megaprojects.
On June 5, the Karen peace park was awarded the 2020 Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Programme, which is awarded biennially for outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
The Karen people — one of the eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar — are seeking an independent state.