Dar Lar Lake is an important wetland in Karen State, Myanmar. Photo: KESAN

People Power - Communities lead the way in governing local wetlands. The Story of Daw Lar Lake, Karen State, Myanmar.

Daw Lar Lake - An ecologically important wetland.
Daw Lar Lake is situated on the western bank of the Salween River in the Karen State of Myanmar and is a seasonally river-fed wetland complex.  Roughly 26 sq. km in size, it is the largest freshwater lake in Karen State, Myanmar and its unique watershed provides a natural habitat for a diversity of plants, fish, birds, turtles, and other types of flora and fauna. The ecological integrity of this important wetland is vital to local communities, who for generations have practised functional and sustainable forms of resource governance.

For local people (pop approx. 8,000)), the ‘value’ of the lake is not measured solely by the economic productivity of the lake but is grounded in a holistic set of practices embracing religious, cultural, economic, and customary legal systems which are interconnected with the rich biodiversity of the lake’s watershed.

But in 2013, when the Karen state government department sought to grant the lake as a concession to a private company for commercial fishing and natural resources exploitation, the communities from five villages that have lived around the lake for generations came together to organize a public campaign to warn of the potential threats from the initiative, and assert their ancestral rights to access its resources as a key source of their livelihoods. This grassroots movement grew in size and scope to a much broader initiative that ultimately puts the people at the centre in governing the Daw Lar Lake and its resources in a sustainable manner.

The Community-based water governance (CBWG) process. A Rights-based approach.
For the communities, the efforts to assert their rights and take matters into their own hands have been fraught with big challenges, mostly related to confronting powerful government and private interests and conglomerates. Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), TROSA partner in Myanmar, has been playing the key facilitators role in bringing together communities in a collaborative process to engage the government in creating a conducive environment to build better policies conserve the Daw Lar Lake and its ecosystem.

This initiative, known as Community Based Water Governance (CBWG), helps build the capacity of community members to involve in the management process of the lake and implement their own vision of its governance. This has resulted in the formulation of a community resource management plan 2018, prepared through a community learning process and based on traditional resource use practices. A formal Daw Lar Lake Management Committee with a clear role and responsibilities has been established.

KESAN does this by building trust and confidence, and helping local communities to understand more about the government’s laws and policies related to land, water and natural resources management and by helping identify issues, gaps and challenges and create opportunities to engage in the CBWG process.

By putting a strong focus on women’s participation in public meetings and in interim committee meetings, the entire process is more inclusive and rights-oriented. The male leaders of CBWG supported and facilitated the female leaders to participate in CBWG decision-making and leadership. KESAN documented these processes in this briefing paper. This work was supported under the Sida funded TROSA project of Oxfam.

Continuous engagement with local government departments like the Karen State Fisheries Department has shown an unprecedented willingness to support community-led conservation efforts.

What are wetlands?
Wetlands are the water structures and often considers as a complex ecosystem which is created by flooding or saturation of the soil. Wetlands are a combination of water and soil. It includes lakes and rivers, mangroves, peatlands and marshes, rivers and lakes, deltas, floodplains and flooded forests, rice-fields, and even coral reefs. It exists in every country, continent and in every climatic zone, from the polar regions to the tropics, and from high altitudes to dry regions. There is no single and formal definition of wetlands; however, the definition provided by the Ramsar Convention, signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, is being used widely which says: “wetlands areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six metres” (https://www.ramsar.org). There are 2414 numbers of wetlands of international importance in the world.

Wetlands are the source of water, natural habitat for a diversity of plants, fish, birds, aquatic animals, and other types of flora and fauna. Wetlands also balance/maintain the ecological equilibrium and hence play a very important role for the environment and communities living around or dependent on it. These wetlands often being considered as the heart of the particular region and country. As wetlands play a very crucial role for ecology and communities living in and around it, the role of community is very important for maintenance governance and sustainability of these natural resources. 

Avinash Singh – Program Quality and Learning Specialist TROSA, Oxfam.
Sameer Singh – Communications and Knowledge Management Specialist, TROSA.

Views expressed are the authors' own.