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Conservation in Myanmar: a cause for optimism?

Myanmar's Inle Lake. Photo by Marc Veraart.Myanmar’s Inle Lake. Photo by Marc Veraart.

Home to some of the largest remaining contiguous forests in Southeast Asia, as well as more than 1,700 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, Myanmar is well-known as a biodiversity hotspot. In 2014 alone, 26 new species were found in Myanmar, including the peculiar Glyptothorax igniculus, a catfish that uses an unusual flame-shaped suction cup on its throat to attach itself to rocks.

Fifty years of relative political and economic isolation have yielded slow economic growth and contributed to the conservation of many of Myanmar’s native species. However, the dissolution of Myanmar’s military junta in 2011 marked the beginning of a new age of increasing political and economic liberalization and international engagement. Many experts fear that possible rapid development fuelled by international investment, improved infrastructure and expanded transport networks, pose a grave risk to Myanmar’s biodiversity and forests.

The new Myanmar is struggling to balance development and environment objectives. For example, overseas investments into the Latpadaung copper mine and neighboring Moe Gyo Sulphuric Acid Factory have drawn the ire of international and local critics, who decry environmental and human rights abuses at the sites. There are similar concerns over growing domestic and overseas agribusiness investment. A recent Forest Trends report suggests that large areas of forest have recently been cleared to make way for new private agricultural development, including rubber and oil palm. Notably, many of these areas have been cleared for their timber values, but 75 percent remain unplanted, suggesting that agricultural development is being used as a front for logging. Investment into the Ayeyarwady Delta has raised particular concern. The delta is home to a number of threatened species including the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), but is also a center of Myanmar’s plan to strengthen agricultural development as part of its economic reform. Recent forecasts warn that all remaining mangroves along the Delta could be lost by 2026.

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) is a primarily freshwater dolphin that is found in many water systems in Southeast Asia, including the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. While the species is currently listed as Vulnerble by the IUCN, several sub-populations have declined dramatically over the past half-century and are considered Critically Endangered. Threats to the species include entanglement in fishing gear, habitat fragmentation due to dams, and habitat degradation from mining and deforestation. Photo by Stefan Brending.

There have also been concerns that unprecedented levels of tourism are placing significant strain on some of Myanmar’s most fragile ecosystems, such as Inle Lake renowned for its endemic fresh water species. Tourist visitation increased to an estimated 1.1 million in 2014, a 264 percent increase from 2010. This trend is set to continue as Myanmar’s new Tourism Master Plan anticipates 7.5 million visitors a year by 2020.

These developments reflect growing concern over deforestation and environmental degradation across Myanmar. The FORMA satellite monitoring system, used to track tree cover loss in near real-time, has released an increasing number of alerts for Myanmar each year since 2011. While 5,183 alerts were issued in 2011, there were a staggering 16,457 in 2014.

Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring platform, shows FORMA alerts intensified and moved northward in central Myanmar between 2011 and 2014. Intact Forest Landscapes – areas of undisturbed forest large enough to retain their original levels of biodiversity – show significant reductions since 2000. Click to enlarge.

Global Forest Watch shows that for southern Myanmar’s Taninthary province alone, 5,500 FORMA alerts occurred between 2006 and 2015, even in official protected areas. Click to enlarge.

Despite significant setbacks and growing alarm, a number of recent developments indicate that Myanmar is also striving to achieve more sustainable development. New legislation demonstrates Myanmar’s intent, albeit not necessarily its means, to address imminent threats to its forests and biodiversity. A new logging ban, which came into effect in April 2014, forbids the export of raw timber. However, evidence suggests that a bulk of Myanmar’s timber trade takes place on its northern border with China, and enforcement efforts are likely to be hampered by ongoing conflicts between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the Kachin Independence Army. In June 2014, additional legislation on natural resource damages, was authorized the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MoECF) to determine the financial liability of a person or entity that causes environmental damage. Furthermore, the legislation authorizes the MoECF to demand Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) from businesses, work sites and factories that might harm the environment. Although there is evidence that some sites, including the Latpadaung copper mine, are currently failing to comply, some domestic companies, such as the Ayeyar Hintha coal-fired power plant, are demanding substantive EIAs from their foreign partners. With these ambitious pieces of legislation now in place, Myanmar must now find ways to ensure that companies and individuals comply.

Although Myanmar is undergoing legal and political reform, members of the country’s military elite remain in positions of power, including President and former General Thein Sein. During their previous reign, members of the old guard initiated a number of projects, mainly in partnership with Chinese companies, which critics argue have already caused huge environmental damage. However, as Myanmar’s political sphere opens, dissenting voices are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Recent years have been marked by a swathe of influential protests voicing the environmental, social and economic concerns of those affected by new large-scale industrial projects. Projects such as the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam have been suspended in the face of domestic public pressure and concern over large projected flooding, environmental impacts, safety and benefit sharing.

Myanmar’s doors have not only opened to international investment, but also to foreign NGOs, governments, and academic institutions, offering financial and technical assistance with potential to promote sustainable development. While a small core of international organizations, including the World Conservation Society and the Burma Environmental Working Group, have actively promoted conservation in Myanmar over the past two decades, a rapidly growing number of international bodies have offered their support in recent years. Last year, for example, the European Union forged links with the MoECF to work towards the sustainable management of forests, and the U.S.-based Blue Moon Fund sponsored a study to develop an integrated water resources management plan for the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River. The Myanmar government has also made commitments to work with the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development to develop a comprehensive eco-tourism policy and protected areas management strategy. There are also emerging plans to designate new protected areas, including in the Myeik Archipelago to help protect imperiled coral reefs and coastal fisheries.

View of the Irrawaddy River from a newly constructed bridge. Photo by Adam Jones.

While Myanmar’s rapid economic transition undoubtedly puts new, alarming strains on forests and biodiversity, there still remain grounds for optimism. The Myanmar government is taking small steps to ensure that development is sustainable, with the support of international organizations. Although ensuring that conservation efforts keep pace with booming development is a challenging task, pressure from Myanmar’s increasingly vociferous population serves as a clear reminder of the commitments that have already been made.