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Graduate Student Spotlight: Hilary Faxon, PhD Candidate, Development Sociology

Hilary

 

"Teaching Environmental Governance is totally amazing in Myanmar. For youths in Myanmar, issues like the Myitsone dam, timber and jade trades, and hydropower, oil and gas problems, are so on their mind. When you start to explain to them that these resources have certain attributes and benefits and that the ways in which they are controlled and exploited are connected to social systems and systems of power, the youths really get it—it’s really on their consciousness.  That’s so exciting for a political ecologist; I want to do more of that."

Interviewed and Edited by Thet Hein Tun, SEAP Graduate Assistant

I’m a PhD student in the Department of Developmental Sociology in CALS (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences). Before coming to Cornell, I completed my Bachelor and Master’s degrees at Yale in Environmental Science and Environmental Management. I look at the social side of natural resource management.

My work now is focused in Burma because the stakes are really high for land and natural resources in the country.  I had done previous work in Bhutan looking at the relationship between the environmental movement, conservation strategies, and the initiation of a new democracy there. I was interested in going to a different country in Asia that is undergoing a political transition and seeing how that political transition could actually play out on the ground.  And I like Burma, which makes a big difference when you are doing PhD work and you have to be there for a couple of years. 

In particular, my current project is focused on land in Myanmar, looking at how women and men of different social groups are using land, accessing land, and making claims to land.  Because of legal changes, it is possible to make new types of claims about farmland registration, and there are also new opportunities for people to bring up old land disputes or military land grabs from the ’80s and ’90s.  I am interested in how that is changing who gets to make claims to land—particularly in regards to gender, but also by where people live, and their economic class or ethnicity.

For example, a project I did last summer was up in Kachin State where we were looking at farmland registration.  There was a farmland law passed in 2012 that allowed farmland registration through a particular process—a long bureaucratic process in which you end up with this certificate commonly referred to as Form 7.  In lowland places like the dry zone and the delta, about 80% of the farmers have the form. But in the Kachin villages, maybe 10% of people have received the form. There’s no guarantee that the form would protect their land, but without the form they have no official claim at all. The project was a participatory research project. We worked with a local NGO and Kachin and Shan community leaders to try to document different farmer stories about applying for registration. We tried to investigate the problem that if only 10% of the farmers are getting the form, who was getting the form and who wasn’t, or which villages were successful and which weren’t, and what types of social factors were mediating that.

In one village, for example, the process was really successful.  There was a really strong push by the church and by local leadership to get everybody on board to apply the form, and they organized collectively.  They were like: “This is really important for our community so we are all going to do it together and we are all going to pay for the transportation and for the survey teams, etc.”  Other villages were more socially divided or had difficult histories of conflict or of agribusiness companies taking land; these issues prevented registrations.

Gender can also be a really powerful marker of who gets to speak, whose opinion is important, and who gets to register or make claims to land. In Myanmar, men are the default heads of households on official forms, and so they automatically get the land. One of the things that I am curious to explore is if these new official processes imposed by the state actually change practices in a community where people share ownership of land.  If the community with strong female land claims starts to get land titles that only have men’s names, does that change who controls the land? That is the sort of question I am interested in asking in the future.

So, my short-term plan is to get my dissertation research up and running back in Myanmar. I will be there for a few years and continue to work with some local researchers. My longer term plan is to be a professor. In the next couple of years, I want to focus on my teaching skills and experience, both in the US and in Burma. In the past, I have done a lot of experimental education in the US. I have led outdoor trips, and I used to run an urban ecology program that taught job skills and urban forestry to high school students. When I lived in Myanmar, I taught an Environmental Policy class at MIT (Myanmar Institute of Theology) in Yangon and an Environmental Science class up in Chin State. Teaching Environmental Governance is totally amazing in Myanmar.  For youths in Myanmar, issues like the Myitsone dam, timber and jade trades, and hydropower, oil and gas problems, are so on their mind. When you start to explain to them that these resources have certain attributes and benefits and that the ways in which they are controlled and exploited are connected to social systems and systems of power, the youths really get it—it’s really on their consciousness.  That’s so exciting for a political ecologist; I want to do more of that.

Photo: Hilary and one of her research partners Naw Mu Paw Htoo at Karen New Year celebration in her village in January 2015.  Photo Credit: Hilary Faxon