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Business and Human Rights

Challenging corporate land grabs in Myanmar and Guatemala

From Guatemala to Myanmar, I met communities defending their right to their land against corporate interests

Naw Pe Tha Law, Executive Director of Tanintharyi Friends, at the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state, Northern Myanmar. (Photo : Blanca Blanco / Trócaire) Naw Pe Tha Law, Executive Director of Tanintharyi Friends, at the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state, Northern Myanmar. (Photo : Blanca Blanco / Trócaire)

I recently visited Myanmar, this was my first time in South East Asia after spending over a decade living and working in Guatemala in Central America.

While both countries are very far away from each other, and have their own particular history and characteristics, I was struck by the many similarities they both share.

Both countries are very diverse, with many ethnic minorities. Having hardly any entitlements, these are among the most vulnerable populations. In both countries, ethnic minorities rank at the lowest end of the scale on basic human rights (education, health, nutrition, etc.).

Both countries suffered under colonialism, from Spain and Britain, and they are still suffering the consequences of many years of exploitation and oppression. Both countries have also suffered from long and vicious conflicts, and in the case of Myanmar, this is still ongoing.

One main challenge facing communities, and women in particular, is the unequal access to resources, particularly land. This is partly a legacy from colonial times, but also powerful local military and economic elites are responsible for much of the land grabbing.

Moreover, this has been aggravated by the dispossession communities are facing by large corporations. This can involve land grabs from agri-business concessions (African palm, sugar cane, banana), mining and hydroelectric dams. These businesses tend to be multinationals or at least partly financed by foreign companies, and are normally from European or neighboring countries (US and Canada in the case of Guatemala, China and Thailand in the case of Myanmar).

Women at the forefront of the struggle

However, in the midst of such despair, there is always a reason to be hopeful that a better future is possible. And this future, more often than not, has a female face. Women are mostly affected by unequal access to land and resources. They suffer an increase in worries (how will I feed my children?) and chores (I now have to walk miles to fetch water) when evicted by a company. They sometimes even face sexual abuse during evictions.

It is not surprising then that they are the ones who are most appreciative of keeping their land and protecting their natural resources. They are always at the forefront of the struggle.

I saw this happening in Guatemala, and now again in Myanmar. I met very strong and courageous young women from ethnic minorities from the Tanintharyi region of Southern Myanmar opposing the construction of a major dam in their region. Indigenous people rely on the Tanintharyi River for their livelihood and more than likely the dam will produce energy that will go to Thailand. Meanwhile most of their indigenous communities don’t have access to electricity.

I met these women in the Northern State of Kachin with other Trócaire local partner organisations. We brought our local partners together to discuss the issues affecting them and their communities in terms of land grabbing and extractives. Such spaces for exchange are vital to share strategies but also for local activists to realise that they are not alone in their struggle. By joining forces it can be easier to get their voices heard.

Trócaire is supporting these women and their communities to stand for their rights, to mobilise to defend their land and protect their natural resources, to complain when prior consent has not been asked by companies to implement a project in their territory, and to demand environmental impact assessments are undertaken by companies.

In order to make sure that big corporations respect human rights in their activities, Trócaire is asking the Irish government to push for a binding UN treaty on business and human rights. At present there is no international legal framework to ensure corporations don’t violate human rights, such as land grabbing.

We need this treaty so that the women I met in Myanmar and Guatemala can have what is their right and hope for a better future.

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