Fostering Collaboration and Building Peace in the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape (DTL)

.In this article, the Landscape Finance Lab interviews Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij and Iain Jackson, key contributors to the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape (DTL). Through their work, we learn practical advice on how to build peace and establish partnerships in the middle of regional conflicts.

Thanks for taking the time to share your story. To begin, how did you first begin working in landscape conservation?

Regan: My background is in community forestry, and my previous role, in a different organization, was working as climate change focal point. A key emerging discussion within the field of community forestry was climate change adaptation, and if you’re looking at climate change adaptation from that perspective, the only way that you can address it is at the landscape level. The landscape approach offers a holistic, systemic way to understanding how natural assets and human assets like infrastructure interact. In this sense, my transition to working on landscapes was a natural one. My current role is the Transboundary Manager for the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape (DTL). On a functional level, this means that I am entrusted with understanding how different pieces of the landscape interact so that I can coordinate, bridge and leverage unique assets from the landscape to help create a more resilient and biodiverse ecosystem.

Iain: My starting point in landscape conservation was a bit different. My parents are conservationists, and while I’ve been involved in conservation work for many years, applying the landscape concept is relatively new to me. My father designed and built nature reserves and protected areas and I practically grew up inside of them. I’ve done conservation all of my adult life, but the idea of connecting with and across different groups rather than working on specific projects is new for me. It’s been a huge learning curve and it’s been challenging

Tell me about the landscape, in simple words. What’s the story? Who is involved? What’s the solution?

Regan: The DTL is the geographic acronym for the Dawna Tenasserim Landscape. These are two major ranges, the Dawna range in the north and the Tenasserim range in the south. The term DTL is primarily a WWF construct, but several governmental agencies in Myanmar and Thailand and other NGOs have also adopted the term. The ecoregion itself is widely known and appreciated for its conservation value and unique identity. It’s an amazing landscape that is approximately the size of Cambodia in total — 180,000 square kilometers. 83% of the landscape is composed of intact forest cover, with most of it being contiguous and connected.

The DTL is one of the largest protected area networks in Southeast Asia, formed by the Western Forest Complex and Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in Thailand — the two protected areas take up 18,000 square kilometers when combined. On the Myanmar side, the landscape is made up of intact forests, however much of this region is not yet under protection. This is due to a rather complicated situation where you have two governing entities interacting in the area — the Myanmar state government and the Karen National Union (KNU).

When we’re looking at the overall governance structure for the DTL, there are three main entities. The problem is that they’re largely not talking to each other. In order to make a meaningful conservation or landscape management decision, you need to bring these three entities together, while also involving civil society groups. There’s a lot of political and historical reasons why this is a challenging task. One of my goals is to find ways to create an ongoing dialogue and conversation between these stakeholders, so that we might create a tripartite process for land use management and information sharing in the region.

In a nutshell, the DTL is an amazing forest area that is full of some of the last remaining populations of tigers, elephants, leopards and bird species. Saving this landscape is the last hope for a lot of these endangered species, but at the same time it presents us with one of the most complicated political and social situations in the field of conservation due to its challenging governance issues. This is where we are at present. As for solutions, the dialogue process and the creation of a shared landscape vision is key to the creation of sustainable solutions, so that’s what we’re focused on.

(Iain) This is a very large landscape; nearly double the size of Portugal and has many particular elements that will either contribute to its success or cause problems. Many of the countries around the DTL have either lost their endangered species or they are under great threat. These are the species that we grew up seeing in coloring books and nature shows, and they very much need protection. Thanks to the protected area network in the DTL, we and our partners have been largely successful in protecting them. When it comes to tigers, elephants or other species that are red-listed, this landscape has them. When looking to the future, we see potential for the species in the DTL to support other landscapes where they have been lost or in decline. In many ways, this landscape is an egg basket that has all the goodies.

How do you involve all of the key stakeholders in the process of designing a large-scale landscape program? What are the challenges and tensions of building and facilitating multi stakeholder partnerships at a landscape level?

Iain: We often think it’s the big challenges that cause the most problems, but we’ve found that it’s ultimately the little things that can trip you up. For me, my limited Thai language skills has hindered my ability to connect with stakeholders on the ground as much as I would have liked. It’s also difficult to interact with government officials unless you have strong skills in Thai communication, and that’s hurt me a little bit. In addition, my passion for conservation can sometimes cause me to get frustrated when I don’t understand why people don’t see things the way that I do! This is something I now consider more as I work to empathise with the other position before jumping to conclusions. For me, the success of building relationships in the landscape context is about simple things: learning to moderate my expectations and having cross-cultural communication skills. It’s important to realise that what you’re saying might not be what people are necessarily hearing. This is compounded when you add different cultures, backgrounds and languages to the mix. Planning for a successful program is all about building good lines of communication, which comes down to trust. Trust takes a long time to build — especially considering the political and social issues on the ground. But it is very important.

Regan: In recent months, our colleagues Gaurav and Amy have been leading jurisdictional land use planning processes within Myanmar to push the landscape approach forward. They’ve been doing a commendable job in a difficult context. Several weeks ago, they hosted a multi-stakeholder land use planning workshop in the middle of a politically rife situation. Amidst the challenges, they were able to play a critical role in bridging the gap and convening the different stakeholders in a productive environment. If Gaurav had not organised this meeting to bring these stakeholders together in the midst of this difficult time, it wouldn’t have happened. The process of building peace in Myanmar is still emergent, so anything that can be done to establish common ground and bring people together around shared interests is vital.

The same holds true for the Thai side of the landscape, where many ethnic minorities, indigenous people and state agencies are present. These stakeholders don’t have clear lines of communication and have very few interests in common, so there is an explicit need for someone to convene the various actors as a neutral third party. The way I see it, this is a vital role that WWF can play in the region. It’s our hope that the DTL program can become a space where we can create a common vision for what the region could look like in 10 years time, while creating a shared platform that everyone can leverage for impact. There is a lot of interest from the various stakeholders in creating a platform like this, which gives me hope. However, I don’t know too many contexts that are as complex as the situation in the DTL, but I still believe that the opportunities are tremendous.

It sounds like your work is equal parts conservation, convening and peacemaking. How has this skill set showed up in your work recently?

Regan: In the regions we work in, conservation is sometimes associated with government and military aspects of government, who often don’t work in the interest of local communities. There is a real risk for adversarial relationships to emerge, but this certainly does not need to be the case. I’ve been working in community forestry for almost a decade, and within this region in particular, the governance structures have tended to be top down and directive, which indicates their belief that local communities don’t have the skills, knowledge or interest to sustainably manage their resources. This actually goes against the existing body of evidence in community forestry which shows that community managed landscapes yield higher rates of carbon sequestration, better wildlife conservation delivery and better overall sustainable management. While this is accepted knowledge in the field, it goes against the mindset of the governing officials. I’ve been aware of this challenge for a while now, and in response we’ve done a lot of work to shift perceptions and change attitudes at the subnational level, especially among district and township officials. These are the power brokers who are working directly with local communities. Even slight shifts in their perception can create a world of difference and lead to win-win settlements rather than the zero sum decisions.

When it comes to working in a multi-stakeholder context, how do you practically shift perspectives and change attitudes on the ground?

Iain: I have more experience working on this in Africa with indigenous populations. It begins with stepping outside of yourself and being aware of how you are perceived. It’s important to understand your biases and preconceptions, and those that others will have of you. When you step out of yourself you can build empathy and understanding from the position of those that you’re working with. It’s amazing to see how your perspective changes once you are in the field. What you believe to be true is often turned upside down, which happens often when you’re working in complex contexts like this. The success of any effort always goes back to being patient, building trust and being consistent, showing up again and again and demonstrating your own receptivity rather than acting as some sort of teacher who is going to show them “how to do” things. There’s a lot of local knowledge that is invaluable, and we in the West have lost much of this. If you can relate to local populations as equal shareholders, that’s a huge step. It’s simple mechanical skills that make the difference in the landscape context: learning to listen and being patient for example. In my case, listening often involved sitting under a tree with a group of elders, simply hanging out and giving them the opportunity to share their story and learn from them. Of course, that’s a very non-Western meeting format. You have to be patient and open to those new things.

Regan: Several years ago I spent a year in a Karen refugee camp, where I gained insight on how people see things and view the world, which helped to shape how I interact and respond to them. In the conservation field, I often hear the viewpoint that “they’re not receptive to conservation objectives”, that “they assert their own right to maintain indigenous hunting within their traditional lands”. While this is not always well received within the world of conservation, I certainly identify and understand where they are coming from. These are traditional lands that have been in conflict for over 60 years and counting. Our approach shouldn’t be to find ways to force conservation objectives on them, but to work with them to secure management and tenure rights so that they can protect the areas that they consider critical ecosystems. By working in this way, we can build a sense of buy-in for conservation and sustainable management at the same time. However, we need to acknowledge the role and the rights of traditional people groups living and working within these lands, whose very existence and role in our work has been systematically questioned.

Iain: The traditional way that we have practiced conservation has often excluded local populations or communities, but in my experience those local people can often be your biggest allies. While local populations may live in marginalised conditions, they are often close knit societies that have a lot to contribute. Under certain conditions, these communities could become a source of local guides for poachers, or they could be partnered with as allies who can work with law enforcement to catch poachers. They’re on the front lines, and its important to engage them as partners in conservation, and that’s crucial to the success of any landscape. If you don’t involve them, you are, in my opinion, dooming yourself to failure.

What’s a time when you learned resilience through your work?

Regan: I had the opportunity to join a workshop for landscape corridors earlier this year. Two WWF colleagues from Mongolia and Russia shared a point on resilience related to transboundary work that I think is worth remembering. The same individuals have been working on the WWF Mongolia and Russia programs to hammer out steps towards a transboundary agreement for twenty years. It’s taken twenty years to build trust and make incremental steps towards building a transboundary landscape. If we think that this type of work will materialise overnight, then we are setting our standards unrealistically high. We must understand that the nature of this work often requires a long period of time.

Iain: While we often talk about external challenges, I think we also need to note the internal challenges within our field that make this work difficult. If you put 5 different landscape experts in a room, you’ll often have 5 different opinions on what a landscape approach is and how it should be applied. Even within our office, there has been difficulty understanding what my job should be, what a landscape is and how we should apply it. It’s a complex concept and the nature of the work is complex. I recently met Pauwel de Wachter, the coordinator of the TRIDOM landscape, at a conference in the Netherlands. It is highly inspiring to talk with people like him, who have been working on these topics for decades and bring so much knowledge with them. Everyone complains in WWF that we’re all working in our silos, and that is often true, but on the other hand there are so many amazing people in the WWF network that we can learn and benefit from and who have supported me. Learning across boundaries helps me gain capacity and keep my eyes focused on the long haul.

How did you first engage with the Landscape Finance Lab, and how has the Lab had an impact on your work?

Iain: I first met Paul, Deesha and the team in Zeist at the Sustainable Landscapes workshop. Claire and Deesha have been recently been reaching out to try to connect people, to share opportunities and create space for us to learn from each other, and that’s been super helpful for me and their efforts are highly appreciated.

Regan: While I’ve not been directly engaging with the Landscape Finance Lab, I have been more involved with the Sustainable Landscapes ACAI, which the Lab supports. I’ve recently worked with Claire and the ACAI to organise a Case Clinic, which on the surface might have not led to tangible gains, but underneath has led to a number of leads that have been very useful for our work. My interactions with the Lab and the ACAI have been indirect, but significantly influential in raising the visibility of the DTL in the WWF network and beyond.

Regan: When it comes to the world of finance, we’re in a really amazing time right now where we are seeing a shift away from the singular focus on economic returns towards a triple bottom line that emphasises social impact and environmental returns alongside their economic gains. A new generation of millennial investors in particular are willing to have reductions in economic returns to see environmental and social goals achieved. In light of this shift in priorities, we have a new asset class of impact investors who are on the market and looking to make sustainable investments. However, they face a shortage of bankable projects and initiatives to invest in. While there is a lot of money and investment capital available for ventures that achieve environmental and social impact, traditional development projects have not been designed to explicitly deliver social, economic and environmental returns. Initiatives like the Landscape Finance Lab can play a tremendous role to make the connection between investors who are looking to put their money in sustainable ventures and those who are designing projects on the ground, to help ensure that the programs they are creating are bankable and can demonstrate the returns that the investors seek.

Iain: I also see the Lab playing a more fundamental role as a catalyst for the sustainable landscapes movement. This is a critical role, and while it may not be easy to quantify, it helps to advance the discourse in the field. The Lab can help get us all talking, thinking and moving in the same direction. While it’s an uphill battle at times, this type of work is invaluable.

What do you need right now? How can others help your work?

Regan: One of the biggest priorities we face right now is with connectivity, for a number of different reasons. From ecosystem services to carbon sequestration, we’re trying to connect the landscape as a habitat for globally threatened wildlife species. There are a multitude of threats coming down the pipeline, primarily centered around infrastructure. The main role I can see ourselves playing is to assist with forest landscape restoration and catalyze work around biodiversity corridors. On the Thai side in particular, we’re trying to connect two major forest complexes. While forest landscape restoration is a key part of our work, we currently don’t have the funds or technical skills to engage in this. We could use support from the Lab community to generate the resources and technical capacity for forest landscape restoration in the DTL. There are also opportunities to look into private sector investment in sustainable rubber production and sustainable forest plantations.

In addition, I would also like to invite others to contribute to the launch of the DTL Initiative, which will help re envision what the DTL looks like in the future. Whatever support you can offer, whether financial or creative, is welcome at this point. We have a lot of hope and a lot of vision, and would love to work together on this.

Thanks for taking time to speak with us Regan and Iain!

Editors Note: The Lab supported WWF Myanmar to raise awareness about the landscape approach through a workshop held in November 2017. This workshop was the first time that the Myanmar government and the KNU came together to discuss this topic. A diverse collection of other representatives, from conservationists, and private sector actors to human rights advocates, were part of the discussion to help map out a potential landscape program. Moving forward, we hope to acquire the funding necessary to kickstart an incubation process that would help solidify the activities mentioned in this article through the landscape approach, as defined in “The Little Sustainable Landscape Book”.

For more information on this landscape, check out the DTL program profile or email Regan directly:

The Landscape Finance Lab is an initiative of the WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) and made possible through support from EIT Climate-KIC and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

This article originally appeared on the Lab’s Medium site From the Earth and was written by Lab contributor Ben Riddle.

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