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Dawei as Green Utopia

The Ecotopia 2121 Project details the futures of 100 cities across the globe as though they've somehow overcome all environmental challenges and become super-ecofriendly. This month, we highlight the future of Dawai City.

Dawei City sits on the southern coast of the nation of Burma (aka Myanmar). The true size of the city, with some 150,000 residents, is hidden beneath the coconut and betelnut palms that give the city a tropical forest ambiance. The city’s residents are predominantly of Dawei ethnicity, making the city different from most other cities in Burma which are dominated by ethnic Burmese.

The Dawei settled here in the 18th Century to avoid the many wars between Burma and Thailand. For 200 years they’d been left alone -- neglected really -- and developed their economy based on fishing and farming, whose produce they consumed locally but also exported around the nation via a small port near the city. Occasionally the military government of Burma would conscript Dawei men into building railways in order to ensure they could deploy troops to border areas in the event of trouble. Even as late as the 1990s, the slave-like work conditions forced upon them by the Burmese Army were enough to push Dawei workers across the border to Thailand as refugees.

Nowadays, Burma and Thailand pretend to be the best of friends as Burma opens up its economy to foreign investors. Industry leaders in Thailand have their eyes set on turning Dawei into one of Asia’s largest industrial parks complete with a massive deep sea port.

Because the Dawei people were never asked if they wanted the project in their city in first place, many Dawei residents resent the government running roughshod over their rights. A number of Dawei women’s groups also resent the risk the project may impose upon their children. A list of their combined grievances include:

1) Land confiscations from farmers. So far, over the last few years, these amount to nearly 70,000 acres of confiscated land and the eviction of tens of thousands of local Dawei from their homes. The Dawai have been promised new land and/or compensation but so far, this has been received in a very patchy manner and at a scale way below the economic losses they have suffered.

2) The ruination of the Dawei agricultural economy. The farmers in and around Dawei City grow betelnuts, cashews, durian, pineapples, mangoes and mangosteens, both for the local economy and a little for export. Most of this agriculture will have to be abandoned as the land becomes industrialized. Wealthier farmers bemoan the effect the industrialization will have on their income. Poorer farmers bemoan the fact that they rely on growing their own food, and if they can no longer do so, they will go hungry. They also do not want to suffer the indignation of being too un-educated to be employed in the factories built on their own confiscated land and of being unable to afford the food sold in the city’s proposed new shopping centers. Facing such food insecurity, many Dawai people report that they expect to have to pull their children out of school because the money spent on school fees will be needed to buy food.

3) The suffering of the sea. With chemical runoff from factories and the dredging of the sea floor to allow free ship movements, the coastline will be altered and degraded profoundly. Not only will the project undermine fishing -- displacing the current fishing port with an industrial port -- it will likely decimate the coastal ecology of southern Burma.

4) Industrial colonization. Environmental activists see this project as a way for Thai developers to circumvent ongoing site-selection problems in their own nation as they plunk the industrial park just across the border into Burma.

If Dawei farmers are turfed-off their land, and if Dawei laborers cannot find employment, and if Dawei children cannot get a basic education, then there is risk of a large-scale economic migration from Dawei to Thailand -- much of it illegal -- as Dawei residents seek out better opportunities to make a living. This will potentially break-up families and decimate the community further.

At the moment, there is still hope. The project is still in its first phase and the Military government, who so fervently pushed the Dawei off their land, has relinquished control of the nation to elected civilians. In Dawei City, there is a classy showroom advertising the project as Dawei: The Next Singapore, linking South East Asia with the Rest of the World. However, if one peers out the window at the showroom, there is as yet only a few water birds perched gently on palm stumps between swamp-bound reeds.

Despite pressing ahead with evictions and land-zoning in the 2010s, the whole project is prone to come to a sputtering halt for lack of investors. The developers think that they have found salvation in the Japanese government, which has promised billions of Yen for the project, but the human rights issues involved are set to become increasingly visible as the world's focus is drawn to other ethnicity-related human catastrophes in the country.

Meanwhile, the financial rewards are not altogether certain, so that any future Japanese government is just as likely to pull out of the project as they are to stay involved. Already the project has been put on hold, then re-started, then slowed-down, then downsized, then up-sized, then down-sized again, numerous times.

Probably, one day, in future, the commercial dubiety of the project is plain for all to see, and Japanese and Thai investors will decide to pack up and leave to cut their losses. The journey to this point may take many decades, and it will depend how far along the project has proceeded, and whether the Burmese government lets up in its bias against ethnic minorities, but perhaps, hopefully, the Dawei people will recover to reestablish their city on the basis of fishing and farming. The air will remain clean and clear and the sea and waterways full of fish. If this happens, then Dawai 2121 will be its own preserved Green Utopia.

The Green Utopia of Dawai 2121

Maybe, though, the Army will force their way into national leadership once more in the not-too-distant future, and maybe financial salvation for the entire project will come from China as the Chinese government seeks to expand its physical presence and economic influence in South East Asia.

But even with the full financial might of China involved, there is likely to be delay after delay as civilians confront the power of the Army, as governments wrangle deals tied to international politics, and as developers push and pull against economic forces. These delays will likely cause insecurity and frustration for the local Dawai people since they will not be able to plan for their futures. Yet it will also give them time to learn about how to either resist the project or adapt to it.

If the delays are finally overcome by Chinese developers (maybe in ten year’s time, maybe in twenty years’ time, maybe far in the future) and the project develops to its full glory, then Dawei locals will hopefully be in a better position than they are now to demand a say in the process. Instead of just submitting to the biased wisdom of Burma’s military planners, and instead of submitting to the slick promises of construction corporations, they will either:

-1) form a resistance via legal challenges to force more delays, or

-2) demand to have a part in the drawing-up of the final plans of the project.

Of course, it’s quite possible for ‘1’ and ‘2’ to be combined together so that the development is mandated to proceed in a step-by-step fashion only if the suggestions of the locals are adhered to at each step. In this case, here’s two suggestions to make the industrial park more ecofriendly:

Eco-power: all personnel involved in the project, from low-paid workers to general managers and investors, have to ride on electro-generating pedal bicycles when they move around on-site. This provides for two environmental benefits. Firstly, the transport of personnel is done without producing waste gases. And secondly, the electricity for the industrial park is -- at least in part -- produced in an ecofriendly manner as the electricity feeds back into the electricity grid.

Bio-power: everyone involved in the project must grow organic vegetables from within the industrial zone and use it to cook lunch for the workers. This also provides for multiple benefits. Firstly, it gives social proof to all that there is no contamination on the site. Secondly, it decreases the ecological footprint of the park’s labor force. And thirdly, it encourages the factories to be pollution-free.

These suggestions, if hardened into law, will not only make for an eco-friendlier industrial zone, they will also drive small-scale local innovation as people work out how to plan the transportation system, the energy system, and the food system for a new type of Asian industrial city.

For the full Dawai 2121 story,

consult the Dawai chapter in the book of the project.

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