The declaration was hailed by environmentalists around the world as a landmark in conserving the only 3,200 wild tigers left by protecting an area the size of Vermont.
But less than a month later, a report and video released by a network of civil society groups and development organizations in Kachin State shows that one of Myanmar's most powerful tycoons has been, and still is, clear-cutting forests across the tiger reserve to put in sugar and tapioca plantations and to plant jatropha for biofuel.
Signs like these from the Myanmar Forestry Dept. and the Wildlife Conservation Society are all that remain of an animal corridor in the world's largest tiger reserve after Yuzana Company bulldozed the area. (Photo courtesy KDNG)
The report, "Tyrants, Tycoons and Tigers" by the Kachin Development Networking Group details how fleets of bulldozers and backhoes are razing forests and destroying animal corridors, leaving only the conservation signboards standing.
The Kachin Development Networking Group is a network of civil society groups and development organizations in Kachin State. KDNG's stated purpose is "to effectively work for sustainable development together with locally-based organisations in Kachin State. It's aim is to promote a civil society based on equality and justice for the local people in the struggle for social and political change in Burma."
"Today a 200,000 acre mono-crop plantation project is making a mockery of the reserve's protected status," the report states.
"Fleets of tractors, backhoes, and bulldozers rip up forests, raze bamboo groves and flatten existing small farms. Signboards that mark animal corridors and "no hunting zones" stand out starkly against a now barren landscape; they are all that is left of conservation efforts," KDNG reports.
"Application of chemical fertilizers and herbicides together with the daily toil of over two thousand imported workers are transforming the area into huge tapioca, sugar cane, and jatropha plantations," according to the report.
"In 2006 Senior General Than Shwe, Burma's ruling despot, granted the Rangoon-based Yuzana Company license to develop this "agricultural development zone" in the tiger reserve," KDNG states. "Yuzana Company is one of Burma's largest businesses and is chaired by U Htay Myint, a prominent real estate tycoon who has close connections with the junta."
The tiger reserve was established in 2001 with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society based at New York's Bronx Zoo.
In 2004, the Myanmar government designated 2,500 square miles of the valley as a wildlife sanctuary, based on the first biological expedition into the area in 1999 led by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, an American who is currently CEO of the wild cat conservation group Panthera, and staff from the Myanmar Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Myanmar Program.
Yazuna bulldozers turn Tiger reserve land into plantations. (Photo courtesy KDNG)
In August, 4,248 square miles was added to the reserve. "I have dreamt of this day for many years," Rabinowitz said at the time. "The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it."
Rabinowitz said the unprecedented tiger reserve extension was enacted after Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein gathered 17 other Cabinet ministers to fly to the valley earlier this year to assess its conservation needs.
Clouded leopards, Asian elephants and some 370 bird species, including the critically endangered Rufous-necked Hornbill, have been found in the region and of the current global estimate of 13,500 plant species, approximately 7,000 are found in this valley and nowhere else on the planet.
"Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia," said Colin Poole, director for Wildlife Conservation Society's Asia Programs, on August 6. "The newly expanded protected area in the Hukawng Valley will be a cornerstone of tiger conservation throughout this iconic big cat's range."
But KDNG spokesperson Ah Nan said on August 25, "The destruction in Hugawng makes a mockery of the tiger reserve. Yuzana is doing whatever it likes with the aid of the generals and the silence of conservationists."
People as well as tigers are being displaced. The KDNG report documents the struggles of indigenous farmers being forcibly relocated to make way for the plantations. There are seven villages in the middle project area with a total estimated population of 5,000. The populations come from several different subgroups of the Kachin ethnicity.
They have organized themselves to resist attacks and intimidation from Yuzana and regime officials, opened a court case against the company and asked the International Labor Organization to intervene.
Yuzana workers clear and burn in the tiger reserve. (Photo courtesy KDNG)
"They threatened the local residents and took away their farms without negotiating with the people. They came at night time and bulldozed away our farmlands. They confiscated cemeteries and burned farmhouses. They confiscated lands belonging to religious organizations," the farmers wrote in a joint letter to Hpakant Township Peace and Development Council in June 2009.
In March 2010, representatives of three villages filed written requests to the International Labor Organization to investigate the actions of Yuzana. In July 2010, more than 100 farmers opened a joint court case in Kachin State.
Yuzana Company was founded in 1994 by Myint. The company is involved in hotels and tourism construction, fisheries, palm oil and rubber plantations. The company owns three hotels and the Yuzana Supermarket in Rangoon.
"We want to bring development to Hukawng," the KDNG report quotes Myint as telling Ban Kawk villagers in 2010.
Myint has been targeted by EU and US government sanctions due to his links with the Myanmar's military regime.
But KDNG predicts that Myint is slated to become a regional governor after Myanmar's upcoming elections. The ruling regime plans to hold general elections on November 7, the first in 20 years.
"These tycoons are a new face of tyranny in Burma," said Ah Nan. "They're set to enjoy even greater power after the elections."
Despite the plantations, the ruling military regime claims in its recent National Tiger Plan that it will double the country's tiger population by 2022.
The plan will be submitted at the first ever Global Tiger Summit to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia in November.
At the summit, Russia will host ministers and heads of state from the 13 countries that still have tiger populations to sign a declaration on joint cooperation for tiger conservation, and to initiate a global tiger recovery program which seeks double tiger numbers by the year 2022, the next Year of the Tiger.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.