Over 50 years of dictatorship, the Myanmar military and its affiliated businesses have unjustly acquired millions of acres of land from farmers and ethnic minorities. Prior to 2021, community paralegals working with Namati’s partners in Myanmar supported over 13,000 people across 8 regions to navigate complex administrative processes to register, regain access to, and better protect the land they use. Uniting across their specific cases, paralegals and communities advocated for and won, 5 major improvements to laws and systems. These included provisions in Myanmar’s 2016 National Land Use Policy which permitted joint land registration between men and women and acknowledged, for the first time, the customary land rights of ethnic minorities.
On February 1, 2021 the military junta seized power, abruptly reversing over a decade of democratic progress. In the post-coup period, our partners’ paralegals have found some success in adopting a more local focus, helping people to solve lived problems, organize themselves, and navigate their new reality.
For example, paralegals are supporting communities to apply for community forestry certificates. Compared with other parts of the government, the forest department is relatively more technocratic, and less influenced by the military, and forest officials have continued to process community applications. The system is flawed: government caps the acreage that can be allotted, and the certificate is a time-bound permit rather than a recognition of ownership. But despite these flaws, early experience suggests that delineating and certifying a forest offers at least partial deterrence against grabbing by companies, elite individuals, and the military, something rare and precious in the current circumstances.
The process of registering a community forest is also a chance to strengthen community governance. Much like their counterparts in Sierra Leone and northern Kenya, paralegals facilitate the election of forest management committees and the adoption of community bylaws for managing the forest. That kind of local organizing builds and sustains community power.