EarthRights School Burma 2011 graduate, Eh Say, is a community development worker with a local development organization in Karenni State, Burma, with a strong interest in environmental activism and sustainability. His fieldwork project while studying at the school was a needs assessment in his home region to find out about environmental and development issues affecting communities and the levels of awareness of these among local youth leaders.
In his research, Eh Say documented some of the pressing concerns which trouble rural Karenni people. Environmental degradation has intensified over the past decade, with rapid over-extraction of resources by private companies that sees little benefit returned to local people in return for destruction of their traditional livelihoods. Land grabbing and militarization has plagued Karenni State and deprived Karenni people of their rights and home lands. In some cases communities have had little choice but to become involved in large scale enterprises as laborers and contractors. These practices, in combination with the need for resources by local groups, the practice of shifting cultivation, and a lack of knowledge about sustainability, means there is often little left to support the needs of struggling communities.
As well as a lack of environmental awareness, Eh Say found very few environmental activists who could organize and lead communities to struggle for their rights and promote sustainable practices amongst villagers and farmers. He did find, however, groups of dynamic young people and emerging leaders committed to building a better way of life and future for their people.
In response, Eh Say developed a project to build a network of young environmental activists and trainers with the knowledge and skills to address environmental and developmental challenges faced by communities. His ‘training of trainers’ project was supported by the Alumni Small Grants program and was held over two weeks in March 2012. The activity engaged 16 young people from rural communities in Eh Say’s home region, most of them working or volunteering with local grassroots youth and development organizations. Through a combination of presentations, video, facilitated discussion, role play and skills building these young leaders studied the core subjects of Team Building, Environmental Awareness, Impact of Development Projects, and Sustainable Development, spanning areas such as biodiversity and eco-systems, community forestry, consumerism, impacts of mines and dams, communication and facilitation skills.
The project participants now form a new network of environmental activists in Karenni State who are inspired to work on addressing the challenges faced by their communities. Eh Say and his organization will continue to provide support and guidance to enable them to do this. The network has mapped out a schedule of activities to take place in different parts of the region in coming months, in areas such as: consumerism, rights based issues and the impacts of industry, environmental awareness and conservation practices, gathering data on land grabbing and large scale development projects that threaten community well-being and livelihoods.