Women and leadership: Theya Chaw's journey to international spokesperson of forest-dependent communities

11, September 2017
From a distance, Theya can already hear her pupils' voices as she approaches the Baptist Ministry's Mission School where she teaches English and conduct. The closer she gets to the school, the more she can hear her pupils running around their classroom. As soon as she enters the classroom, they all run toward her shouting, "Teacher! Teacher!" as if they haven't seen her in months. But this is how the children greet her every day -- with wide smiles and big hugs.
Stories of Change
Ther chaw

Since college, Theya has been actively involved in voluntary work at the Baptist Ministry of Layshee. Most of the time, she is busy teaching children from her community, as well as mission work in nearby townships.

Theya is the daughter of a teacher and a housewife. Her family belongs to the Naga indigenous people. She grew up in Layshee, a town that only gets two hours of electricity daily, from 7pm to 9pm before the hydroelectric power plant went into operation recently. Straight forward, intelligent and compassionate, she has a degree in Theology and a master’s in Divinity from India. She is in her last year in Philosophy for her second degree.

“Children please sit down so we can start our class. Would you like to sing first?” asks Theya. The children respond joyfully with “Yes teacher!” After a song or two, Theya begins their lessons. “Today we are going to talk about what you would like to be when you grow up. Is that okay?” Theya asks with a pleasant smile. Her pupils respond with another loud but cheerful “Yes teacher!” The children’s dreams and aspirations are varied: from farmer to teacher, nurse to doctor. As a child, Theya herself once dreamed of becoming a nurse, but her destiny led her to a different path.

After two hours of going about their daily routine – lessons, storytelling, and singing, the children bid their goodbyes with their customary, “Goodbye teacher! Goodbye classmates!” After the children left, a group of people from Yangon along with the township elders arrive to visit the school. A man from the group instantly recognizes Theya and starts exchanging pleasantries with her. Theya smiles back and returns his greetings, but tries to hide that she cannot remember who the man is. Seeing her expression, the man reminds Theya of where they first met.

“We worked together in Yangon in 2008 during your church mission there. I work at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Yangon. Do you remember?” Theya starts to remember. She asks what brings him to Layshee – a township that takes two days to reach from Yangon. The man explains that WCS in partnership with RECOFTC will conduct a training in December on community forestry, REDD+ and climate change in Layshee. He adds that they are looking for potential participants and local partners in the area to join the project’s inception meeting in November 2013.

Soon after, the school receives an invitation for the meeting. The ministry’s pastor sends Theya to represent the Naga group.

On the day of the meeting, Theya enters the room and sits in one of the chairs. She scans the room for anyone she might know. When she sees a familiar face, she nods or waves to acknowledge them.

The meeting starts and Theya listens to the myriad of issues in their community and what the project aims to do to address them. After the meeting, she and many others understand the issues better. She feels compelled to participate in the upcoming sub-national training because of her interest in environmental conservation and community affairs.

On the day of the training, a cool morning greets Theya and 30 other participants while waiting for the sub-national training to start. She sips hot tea to keep warm. After a few more sips, the WCS Technical Coordinator for Education & Outreach, Myint Myint Oo, opens the training with a warm welcome. Khin Moe, Training Coordinator of RECOFTC leads the facilitation of sessions in community forestry, REDD+ and climate change.

As each training day passes by, Theya becomes more and more well-known among her peers for her witty, meaningful and sensible questions. Each day she shares her experiences and opinions on how their forests and environment can be better managed. Team members from RECOFTC and WCS witness firsthand her natural skills in facilitation as she actively participates in all her group work and assignments.

The issues discussed are all new to her, and Theya realizes that their community is facing problems in governance, uncontrolled timber cutting for fuelwood and agriculture, and forestland and village boundary conflicts. She clearly understands now the importance of forests in mitigating climate change, in improving the quality of their environment, and in addressing the problems in her community.

But it’s also these realizations that divide her conscience. She agonizes at the thought of restricting her fellow villagers from cutting timber for fuelwood because she knows too well that each household needs it for cooking, lighting and keeping their families warm at night. How will she convince the farmers to refrain from practicing slash and burn farming – a practice handed down to them for generations?

“Local people can and want to protect forests, especially because climate change is already making our lives more difficult.”

At the end of the training, WCS’s Myint Myint Oo asks, “Theya, would you like to join our community-level training and awareness activities? You impressed us and we believe you will be a good member of the team.” Theya is in two minds. However, in the end her desire for the greater good of the community wins and she decides to join the next events.

In 2013, Theya takes part in a series of WCS-led community-level trainings and her schedule has never been busier. Her church duties and teaching responsibilities at the school are piling up. Most of the time, she has to beg off in joining the WCS community trainings because her pupils and her church duties weigh heavier in her heart. WCS understands her other commitments and sees the silver lining in the situation. The project team recognizes her potential to share her knowledge to a wider community at religious and social affairs where she regularly participates. They decide to invite her to a refresher course the following year – a training of trainers that will prepare ex-trainees in conducting community-level awareness activities, the real battle ground so to speak.

The following year, the scorching heat of summer 2015 welcomes the WCS and RECOFTC team in Layshee. The trainers for the refresher course are all set. Several ex-trainees including Theya have all taken their seats. After the opening ceremonies, the trainers start to unpack the topics on REDD+, climate change and community forestry, and how these topics should be facilitated during village-level awareness activities.

The refresher course training goes by without a hitch.

Right after the training, participants form into five groups to conduct awareness raising activities. Theya leads one group with two other members, a man and a woman, to conduct awareness-raising events in three villages in Layshee.

Her group proceeds to the first village – Benego, where they run into some difficult moments. “We appreciate what you are teaching us, but climate change or REDD+ is not our issue. We need practical livelihood skills,” says one villager. “If you stop us from cutting trees for fuelwood and agriculture, what alternatives can you give us?” follows up another villager.

The moment that Theya dreads is finally staring her in the eye. The villagers await her answer. It throws her off but she composes her thoughts and gives a calm reply. “Thank you for bringing up those issues, as I share your concerns too. We have no specific answer right now, but we can assure you that your issues and concerns will reach the leadership of WCS and RECOFTC.” Her quick but calm response saves her group.

The two other villages raise the same issues. However, this time they handle the concerns with relative ease.

Upon completing the village-level awareness activities, Myint Myint Oo meets with the group leaders. In the meeting, Theya shares the issues and concerns of the villagers they visited. It turns out that the rest of the villages raised the same problems. Myint Myint Oo summarizes and ends the meeting with an invitation to join the sub-national and national consultation meetings to further discuss the concerns they gathered from the villages.

At the sub-national consultation meeting in Khantee, Theya once again shines as she passionately shares her group’s experiences during the village-level awareness activities. Then, she again proves herself worthy to represent the Naga people during the national consultation meeting in Nay Pyi Taw displaying her improved knowledge of climate change, REDD+ and community forestry, and actively sharing her experiences.

Theya feels fulfilled, making true her promise to bring her villagers’ issues and concerns to the appropriate authorities. She returns to Layshee eager to reunite with her pupils and resume her church duties. But her reunion is short-lived.

As the season changes from hot to rainy, Theya receives an invitation from WCS and RECOFTC to participate in the regional pre-World Forestry Congress (WFC) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. The project team chose her because of her sincere desire to contribute to local forest conservation and her eagerness to share their local condition to policy makers and development organizations to get support for forest-dependent communities.

She feels excited but at the same time burdened with a huge responsibility to represent her country and people well. After attending preparatory meetings, she leaves Layshee on a rainy day, marking the start of her three-day journey to Bangkok, Thailand.

After a long trip, Theya finally arrives in Bangkok. The meeting discusses forest issues that local communities prioritize, to prepare for the upcoming XIV World Forestry Congress, the largest and most significant gathering of the world’s forestry sector set to take place in Durban, South Africa in September 2015.

On opening day, she joins the Myanmar group where she again demonstrates her confidence in sharing her experiences during the awareness activities that she led in Layshee.

In plenary, Theya shares the reasons why global warming and climate change are happening and its impacts in her community. Her passionate call on all the participants to work together to find a market for local products made by local communities draws applause.

On the last day, RECOFTC facilitators open the floor for nominations on who will represent the region at the World Forestry Congress in South Africa. Theya and 17 others are nominated. Theya is humbled and at the same time thrilled, but also nervous after the facilitator announced that the nominees need to deliver a short speech. When her turn came up, she calmly delivers a short but meaningful speech.

“Local people can and want to protect forests, especially because climate change is already making our lives more difficult,” says Theya, “But to do this effectively, we need resources. Invest in us, invest in local communities!” The room bursts into applause.

At the end of the regional pre-WFC meeting, Theya is one of the four elected participants to represent the region at the World Forestry Congress in Durban, South Africa.

She returns home in Layshee to a warm welcome. “We are proud of you Theya,” her pastor says. “You have come a long way. Continue to make the Naga people proud by making their voices heard on the international stage.” Theya is overwhelmed by the support from her community and family.

After preparatory meetings, she leaves Layshee full of inspiration from her village leaders and starts her five-day journey to South Africa. It is long and tiring but she gets there.

On the second day, the moment she’s been waiting finally arrives. As she waits for her turn on the podium, she feels nervous but confident of her knowledge she gained from her trainings. After a short introduction, the facilitator announces her name as the next presenter.

Nervous but well prepared, she shares with the audience on what it is like to raise awareness on climate change in remote areas of Myanmar, how she is bringing local concerns on climate change and forests to government, and why there is a need to invest in participatory processes in forest management.

She ends her presentation with an emphatic call, “Invest in me through funds and resources for community forest implementation, livelihoods and enterprise development. I am the Khantee forest!”

The experience is a battle won and Theya’s defining moment as a female leader on the international stage, but to achieve her goals for her community, she would still need support and resources. Upon her return, the question of ‘alternative livelihood’ still lingers, and the call for more practical livelihoods skills continues to resonate from the villages