A small sign – with huge impact

Fighting for indigenous land rights

In the north of Myanmar, the landscape is adorned with huge tracts of forest. Despite being the main resource for survival, the population has little access to it. Large industries are destroying the available land and replacing it with banana plantations. Thanks to the perseverance of the villagers and the help of SWISSAID, the village community is able to assert its rights.


Country, region:
Myanmar, Kachin
January 2019 – December 2021 (project over)
1,446 households
Total project budget:
CHF 268,582


The project aims to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. For the time being, the objective is to ensure security of tenure of their forests and farmlands. Women will also be empowered and better integrated into the communities’ decision-making processes.

This project is co-financed by the SDC program contribution.

Daw Kaw Daung Naw is happy. Very happy. Since September 2020, she has the right to use part of the forest. She has a stamped certificate to officially prove it. The government has granted her and the village community the right of use for a total of 1,410 hectares, or about 5,706,068 square metres of land, for a period of 30 years. “This paper gives us security. The security of being able to keep our crops. Security for our children. The security that our way of life will be preserved.”

David versus Goliath

Daw Kaw Daung Naw lives in the small village of Ding Gong Yan. This community in northern Myanmar is surrounded by vast and magnificent forests. Beautiful and yet also very sought-after. Most of the land is taken over by powerful investors. They cut down trees, plant large monocultures such as banana plantations and exploit the soil and the local people.

“We were afraid they would confiscate our harvest,” says Daw Kaw Daung Naw. Like so many others in the region, this widow lives off the land. The small fields on the edge of the forest east of the village are essential for her livelihood. She plants ginger, pumpkin, and mountain rice in these fields. Then she sells the surplus at the market.

More than six years ago when SWISSAID’s partner organisations suggested that she should join a community in order to defend her rights, she only hesitated for a moment. Since then, the forest community has been campaigning to preserve the forest. In workshops, the members are also being introduced to the principles of agroecology. They learn how to use organic fertilisation methods and how to plant local products grown from their own seeds.

Rewarding efforts

Six years’ worth of effort has now resulted in an official government certificate. The forest community thus becomes the legal owner of the area. In addition to rights, the certificate also brings with it some obligations: the immense resource that is the forest must be protected. For example, no trees can be felled and overexploitation must be prevented. These are requirements that the community complies with without any problems, since they are all working in its interest and in the continuity of a long tradition. “This is our way of life,” says Daw Kaw Daung Naw.

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