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Myanmar faces new conservation challenges as it opens up to the world

For decades, one of Southeast Asia’s largest countries has also been its most mysterious. Now, emerging from years of political and economic isolation, its shift towards democracy means that Myanmar is opening up to the rest of the world. Myanmar forms part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, and some of the largest tracts of intact habitat in the hotspot can be found here. With changes afoot, conservationists are looking to Myanmar as the best hope for protecting biodiversity in the region.

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have undertaken an analysis of the environmental threats facing the country, recently published in AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. By reviewing previous studies and analyzing potential changes in the climates of ecosystems across the country, the scientists have identified the primary conservation challenges facing the nation.

Fishing on Inle Lake. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

“For many years, Myanmar’s isolation has served to protect the biodiversity which has disappeared from many other regions in Southeast Asia,” said WCS’s Dr. Madhu Rao, lead author of the study. “Things are now changing rapidly for Myanmar, which will soon experience increasing economic growth and the myriad cascading effects of climate change on its forests and coastlines. The opportunity to protect the country’s natural heritage with a strategic and multi-faceted approach is now.”

Myanmar has extremely high biodiversity and a wealth of natural resources. In the north, Himalayan foothills extend down to forested valleys that are home to tigers, elephants, and rare birds. Mountains and plateaus give way to the central plains, and the great Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) river flows south, through a fertile valley, to a delta rich with mangroves and swamps before reaching the Andaman Sea. Some of these ecosystems, such as the lowland tropical forests and mangroves, are critically threatened elsewhere in the region. Myanmar is home to numerous endemic species, such as the white-browed nuthatch (Sitta victoriae), Myanmar snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota), and Burmese roof turtle (Batagur trivittata). In total, 233 globally threatened species are found here, 65 of them classified as Endangered, and 37 critically so.

However, the country’s large extent of intact habitat is relative to the extreme habitat loss seen in neighboring countries. Myanmar has not escaped habitat destruction, and in fact has suffered some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. From 1990–2005, 18% of all forest area was lost to logging, much of it illegal. The lowland forests are most likely to suffer further future losses, as pressure on natural resources increases; commercial logging, agricultural expansion, and conversion to rubber and oil palm plantations are the main threats identified by the study.

Location of Myanmar (inset) within mainland Southeast Asia. Credit: Rao M. et al, 2013.

The scientists highlight weak environmental safeguards and low investment in conservation as two of the key factors that could make Myanmar especially susceptible to the effects of rapid economic development and climate change. Currently, overexploitation of both plant and animal species for subsistence and trade, along with habitat degradation and loss, are regarded as the primary threats to biodiversity in Myanmar. With international investments expected to increase dramatically in the near future, the authors anticipate “far-reaching negative implications for already threatened biodiversity and natural-resource dependent human communities.”

Myanmar’s system of protected areas is currently insufficient to safeguard biodiversity, with few large areas under protection, according to the researchers. In addition, the system as a whole does not represent the biological and geographic diversity within the country. Limited resources, both technical and financial, are to blame. However, Rao is hopeful that these issues can be overcome: “Myanmar is in a good position to begin addressing key technical and financial constraints – especially given the level of support that is being offered to the country by external entities. The time is right to fill policy gaps related to biodiversity and protected area management.”

“Given the current trajectories of economic interest in Myanmar, urgent conservation priorities include the need to expand and strengthen the existing protected area system, strengthening the legal and policy framework related to biodiversity and protected areas including the development of effective environmental safeguards and bolstering institutions responsible for protected area management,” Rao told When examining the potential impacts of climate change, the scientists reached similar conclusions, advocating the protection of large, connected areas to “allow species or communities to track changing habitat conditions through space and time.”

Wetland systems, an important habitat for both wildlife and local communities, have already been degraded and are likely to suffer further from mining and hydroelectric development. The authors recommend the development of strict regulatory frameworks to limit their effects.

“The key to mitigating impacts of extractive industries is to develop and implement strong Environmental Impact Assessments and ensure that safeguards are adequately built into policies,” Rao said.

The study’s climate change analysis revealed that Myanmar is expected to experience high exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events, as well as a range of impacts on human communities and biodiversity. The overall assessment predicts that sea level rises and storm surges will threaten coastal and estuarine ecosystems, changes in rainfall and temperature patterns will result in increased flooding and drought, and species’ ranges will shift to follow fluctuant habitats.

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society examines the potential implications of growing economic development and climate change on the biodiversity of Myanmar, home to wild places such as the Hukaung Valley. Photo courtesy of WCS Myanmar Program.

“The short and long-term impacts of climate change will aggravate existing threats to biodiversity in Myanmar through direct mechanisms and indirectly, through impacts on humans and their dependence on the products and services produced by terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems,” the authors write.

James Watson, WCS’s Climate Change Program Director and co-author of the study, adds, “the threat of climate change implies the need to embrace ecosystem-based strategies that will enable people to be resilient and allow species to survive. With sensible planning, the people of Myanmar can aim to protect the key ecological services that will provide an important buffer for the likely effects of climate change that are already occurring.”

Recognizing the needs of local people and ensuring their involvement with conservation projects is vital. The authors state that greater engagement of local communities is an “essential requirement,” and that “appropriately designed conservation laws and land use policies are crucial to clarify how local communities can legally manage and benefit from natural resources.”

Rao explained further that “establishing clear zones for community use with their participation is not only important to ensure access of resources by communities but also helps spatially separate core areas without human use that could potentially act as source areas for wildlife. Ensuring local communities have tenure over their lands through clear land titles is an important mechanism to provide access to resources and simultaneously preventing the overexploitation of natural resources.”

What’s more, local people can be powerful advocates for their country’s biodiversity.

“There is a growing and dynamic group of civil society groups that are concerned with environmental issues and conservation,” Rao said. “Many of these have been organized around the threat of large, poorly planned infrastructure projects. Organizations such as Burma Rivers Network and the Dawei Development Association are increasingly sharing information and organizing the general public to be more informed and to participate in local and national decision making.”

The Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, Myanmar. Photo by Rhenda Glasco.

Furthermore, tourists are rediscovering Myanmar, and responsible ecotourism may offer an additional route to biodiversity conservation.

“Ecotourism can only offer conservation benefits if the ecotourism activity is well designed with mechanisms in place that involve strong linkages between ecotourism revenues and biodiversity conservation. Involving local communities in ecotourism and making explicit linkages to conservation targets can ensure benefits,” Rao said. “WCS is currently working with local communities in Mandalay to develop a community based ecotourism project linked to conservation of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.”

Although the study emphasizes the range of challenges facing Myanmar, it also highlights the great opportunities that exist to safeguard human livelihoods and biodiversity if action is taken. “Leaders of the Myanmar government have a chance to transform their country into a model for sustainable development,” said Joe Walston, Executive Director of WCS’s Asia Program. “Saving Myanmar’s natural wonders for posterity will rely on filling knowledge gaps and correctly anticipating the responses of environment and people in a changing world.”

Paper: Rao M., Htun S., Platt S.G., Tizard R., Poole C., Myint T., Watson J.E.M. 2013. Biodiversity conservation in a changing climate: A review of threats and implications for conservation planning in Myanmar. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. DOI: 10.1007/s13280-013-0423-5

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