From Karen State to Coron Island - an inspiring journey

A group of Myanmar Karen people have gone to the Philippines to meet the Tagbanua peoples, with whom they share a similar past, to be inspired by their successful fight to secure the rights to ancestral land and water.

Staring through the airplane's windows, the islands appear through the clouds underneath us. A color scheme of blue and green fill our view. It is the island of Coron, the northernmost island in the Palawan island group in the Philippines.

We are travelling with a group of Karen villagers, civil society members and members of the Karen National Union from Myanmar, to learn about how indigenous peoples in the Philippines have secured the rights to protect and manage their own land and waters. We spent a couple of days in Manila before coming here, where the Philippine story on Indigenous Peoples and Local community Conserved Areas (ICCA) was told to the visitors from Myanmar. It offered an opportunity to learn about this important conservation practice, which could potentially also support ethnic groups in Myanmar and their rights to conserve their own areas. "ICCA might be new as a term to the international community, but there is not a single indigenous peoples group that does not have a form of ICCA in their governance system and practices." Said MIks Guia Padilla, NTFP EP's Board of Trustees President who are supporting ICCAs in the Philippines.

We arrive on the island of Coron mid-day, and the sun is shining as we take the boat out to the island. On arrival, however, we are surprised by a heavy tropical rain soaking the mangroves surrounding the island.

The Karen people, many who are travelling abroad for the first time, keep taking photos of the landscape. We arrive at the village of Cabugao, home to the Tagbanua people, who for 35 years fought for the right to protect and manage their own ancestral land and water. The chairman, who for many years led the fight, travelling to international conferences, meeting with Philippine politicians and regional representatives, tells the story of the long fight his people have endured. The Karen people take notes while listening to a story that in some ways is similar to their own, even though there are significant differences to the conflict that the Karen people have experienced, and the fight the Tagbanua people have withstood.

"Tomorrow I will show you our island," says the chairman. After an early octopus breakfast, we walk to the shore and board the boats that take us around the island. The first stop is one of the sacred lakes. The chairman proudly shows the information centre that tells visitors and tourists the story that he told us the day before, about how they had fought for their right to protect their ancestral land and water. They also show us a large 3D map of their island, and some of the Karen people explain how they have also started developing 3D maps of their areas, with support from WWF.

After a swim in the lake and a visit to other parts of the island, we finish off the day with a late lunch on a golden beach. The Karen people share with the Chairman how impressed they are with the Tagbanua story, and how they are fighting for the same rights back in Myanmar. As the sun sets, the Karen people, civil society groups, Tagbanua and WWF staff gather around the Chairman. They cannot communicate directly with each other, but you can sense a unique connection between the people.

Their stories might be different, but their fight to protect and manage their ancestral lands, whether in Myanmar or in the Philippines, is very much the same. ICCAs can be an important conservation practice in Myanmar and could also support peacebuilding and development in ethnic areas. If ICCAs were to be recognized as a part of the Protected Area System in Myanmar, it could help achieve the ambitious targets the country has put forward in terms of protecting and sustainably managing terrestrial and marine ecosystems across the country. ICCAs in Myanmar would grant the right to ethnic groups across the country to conserve their own areas, but most importantly, they would be recognized for the conservation work that many of these groups are already doing and have been doing for generations.