This forest in Myanmar has survived a 68-year civil war. Now its future is uncertain

This forest in Myanmar has survived a 68-year civil war. Now its future is uncertain

This forest in Myanmar has survived a 68-year civil war. Now its future is uncertain

Updated 2 October 2017, 10:20 AEDT

A "peace park" run by the Karen ethnic minority is on the brink of disaster — or perhaps an unusual kind of success.

If you drive to the edge of a river and hop in a long wooden blue-and-red boat, you can travel across the muddy, fast-flowing river that separates Thailand from Myanmar in minutes.

On either side, the dense forest rises to the clouds as the engine roars against the current.

Hidden beneath luminous, round-leafed teak trees on the Myanmar side is a small temporary displacement village, and its smiling and determined inhabitants: the Karen people.

After the ceasefire

The Karen ethnic minority and their uniquely protected wilderness is just emerging from a 68-year civil war, with the self-titled Karen State and the Myanmar Army currently observing a ceasefire.

While many Karen people live in refugee camps just inside Thailand, they also remain in their thousands in this area of Myanmar. The region is characterised by rich biodiversity and traditional culture.

Perversely, the conflict actually preserved large areas of rainforest by making logging, poaching and development too dangerous.

"We want our Karen people living peacefully without any violence or disturbance. We want peace," says trainer Mabu Jaratpratprueang, the land and forest resource management coordinator of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

The Karen people want to maintain the forest as their self-titled "peace park" — with a view to preserving their strong sense of cultural identity.

"A lot of times during the revolutionary time, for over 60 years, we lose a lot of our cultural practice. That's why we're trying to revitalise and strengthen our culture," says Mr Jaratpratprueang.

Tigers, leopards among wildlife

The 5,200 square kilometre peace park is a complex web of fully-protected wilderness segments, various intermediate zones that allows for hunting, tending the forest, crop growing and small villages.

Young people, both men and women, from villages around the district, are being trained as forest rangers.

Clare Campbell from Wildlife Asia is helping train these rangers — who survey wildlife and signs of illegal activity — in camera-trapping techniques, wildlife monitoring, apprehending poachers and surveying.

"There seems to be a reasonable population of tigers here, leopards too, and we've found evidence of leopards with cubs, which means there's a solid prey base," says Ms Campbell.

"That's hugely exciting, and there could be new species we haven't discovered yet."

Zones in the region have already been identified and mapped, and rangers are learning how to protect them.

The arrangement is a deliberate political gesture: it's meant to show that the Karen mean business. They want self-determination within Myanmar, and control over what development happens and where.

Protection from poaching

But with the ceasefire, the "money-men" are massing on the tribal borders.

Huge hydroelectric dams are planned for these secret valleys by Chinese and Thai consortiums, gold mining is already wreaking havoc, roads have opened remote areas to visitors, and poaching is becoming a major threat.

For Ms Campbell, who runs Wildlife Asia on her own, even having media in the area could attract trouble. In a region being stripped of its animals for traditional medicine and the dinner table, public knowledge brings poachers.

"We know the poaching pressure is going to increase because the demand for wildlife products hasn't decreased, despite a lack of available wildlife from surrounding Asian countries since so many species have been wiped out," she says.

"Any tracts of forest with wildlife remaining have huge value to poachers. We know if we're able to access this area chances are poachers are able to as well."

Where to next?

The Karen people are on a knife's edge between disaster or an unusual kind of success.

"There is a worry of exposing them to greater risk, but it is the time to alert the rest of the world," says Ms Campbell.

"This is the moment, when we've got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect what's left here.

"We need the world to know the value of what is here, and we must protect it."