BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) – Myanmar’s military junta is allowing gold mines to pollute the world’s largest wild tiger reserve and has promoted development that is destroying ethnic Kachin communities, a report released Wednesday alleged.

The Kachin Development Networking Group, a coalition of NGOs, also accused the government of doubling its military presence in the Hukaung Valley in northwestern Myanmar. The government signed a peace pact with the separatist Kachin Independence Organization in 1994.

As part of that expansion, the military has confiscated a third of the farmland and scores of public buildings in and around the main town of Danai, the group said.

“Local residents had high hopes that peace would foster economic development and improve living conditions,” the report said. “However, under the junta’s increased control, the rich resources of the (Hukaung) valley have turned out to be a curse.”

A spokesman for the government did not respond to a request for comment.

The Hukaung Valley is home to the world’s largest tiger reserve and contains as many as 150 tigers – or about a third of the country’s entire population. It also has one of the largest wetlands in Asia and is home to wide variety of other animals including Asian elephants, clouded leopards and red pandas.

The government set up the reserve in 2001, with help and funding from the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society, to boost the numbers of tigers and other endangered animals in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma.

It tripled the size of the reserve in 2004 to 8,452 square miles. Unlike a protected national park, the reserve allows tens of thousand of people – including the Kachin, Naga and Lisu ethnic groups – to live and work within its boundaries.

While the government has been credited with reducing poaching in the reserve, the Kachin Development Networking Group says authorities have allowed gold mining to prosper since 2002 by selling off individual concessions to select businessmen who operate large-scale, mechanized operations.

The group said three gold mines are polluting the rivers that run through the valley with mercury and other chemicals, and the temporary camps for miners have led to an explosion of drug use, prostitution and HIV cases.

The report does not single out the WCS for blame but it does call for the “re-evaluation of environmental protection programs inside Burma to ensure that they are not simply green washing the regime’s policies of militarization and rampant resource exploitation.”

Alan Rabinowitz, who oversees the WCS’ big cat program that includes the Myanmar reserve, acknowledged that gold mining is a problem and says he has repeatedly pressed the government to ban it with limited success.

But he says the problem has to be kept in perspective. The mines are located in a small part of the reserve and are not as much of a threat to the wildlife as hunting has been in the past or planned sugar cane and tapioca plantations are in the future.

“Putting sugar cane plantations in a reserve is like throwing candy in a daycare center,” he said. “Elephants love sugar cane and what you will get is major wildlife conflicts.”

Despite all these problems, Rabinowitz insisted the reserve would help ensure that the populations of tigers and elephants increase. Wildlife police have already cut down on poaching and the illegal sale of bush meat, Rabinowitz said, while authorities are considering zoning the valley to limit certain types of development.

“We’re making progress. We’re saving stuff,” he said. “Does the reserve have lots of issues? Sure it does. But that is part of the dynamic of conservation on a large scale.”

On the Net: Wildlife Conservation Society:

AP-ES-01-10-07 1351EST