Life among mangroves

Today, Tanintharyi has more remaining and ecologically healthy mangrove forests than the Irrawaddy Delta, Zockler said. But some of the same pressures that wreaked havoc there — growth in shrimp farming, rice cultivation and charcoal harvesting — are ramping up here. And that spells trouble for marine wildlife and the local communities it sustains. Healthy mangroves serve as fish nurseries, helping to buoy the region’s fishing industry.

On Zockler’s recent expedition and in surveys conducted by FFI and the Tanintharyi-based conservation group Green Network, locals reported that wood-cutting had accelerated in the past five years, due in large part to the import of cheap chainsaws from China. The wood is used to feed demand for charcoal in Myanmar and Thailand and to fuel fish-drying factories in Myeik.

In many of the villages that dot the Tanintharyi coast, mangroves remain a central part of life and are put to a much wider variety of uses. In Ma San Par, a fishing village tucked inside the treed waterways of an island near Myeik, 24-year-old Zaw Ko Oo putters his boat away from town each day before high tide to set crab traps deep in the submerged forest. He has been fishing this way since he was 4 years old, when he would accompany his grandmother into the mangroves with crab traps made of bamboo.

Nearly every family in town survives on marine life supported by the mangroves, either within the forest or farther out to sea. They mend boats with wood planks carved from mangrove trees. They build their homes above the shoreline, elevated on sawed-off mangrove trunks. They cook meals over fires that burn with charcoal made from mangroves. When storms come, the same trees serve as a bulwark, for which the people of the village are grateful. “The mangroves protect us from the outside wind and waves,” Oo said.

Village life continues in this way up and down the Tanintharyi coast. But it is not always by choice that communities turn to mangrove clearing, said Oo and others in his village. In places where fishing has become more difficult, people harvest mangroves to sell because they have few other options.

Many in the region say the process was jump-started by businessmen who first penetrated the area nearly two decades ago. Today, charcoal kilns operate even in small villages, supported by investments from outsiders, according to researchers from Green Network. Charcoal from the highest-quality mangrove species is shipped abroad. Lower-grade trees are consumed domestically. Across the board, villagers report that the biggest trees are now gone from the landscape.

Much of the charcoal harvesting is illegal, according to conservationists. Myanmar’s new government, ushered into power just two years ago in the country’s first democratic election in more than three decades, has attempted to ramp up enforcement in Tanintharyi, but it has been difficult because the trade is widespread across a vast territory, and charcoal exports have become a big business for the country.

The region has just one formally protected area that contains mangroves: a national park on a remote island. The country as a whole has a similar problem: mangroves are underrepresented throughout Myanmar’s protected area system. Several mangrove forests in Tanintharyi are proposed for protection, but nothing has been finalized.

A mangrove reserve under pressure

Conservationists are hopeful that local communities can help fill the void. FFI, Green Network and others want to expand community forestry efforts. “We’d like to see larger areas go into the management of communities,” said Mark Grindley, FFI’s program manager in Tanintharyi, “but that also depends on their ability to keep out illegal timber collectors or charcoal makers. Because if they don’t get policing help, they’re just going to come into conflict with the other forest users.”

FFI and Green Network have also begun a pilot program to help curb demand by introducing fuel-efficient wood stoves and subsidizing people who switch to gas burners, but the programs are still small at this point.

In the meantime, Myeik University marine science professor Nang Mya Han has undertaken a study of the carbon-storage capabilities of Tanintharyi’s mangroves, with the hopes of one day being able to sell carbon credits to other countries. In addition to working as storm buffers and combating erosion from rising sea levels, mangroves are also better at storing carbon dioxide than almost any other kind of tree, making them valuable in the fight against the rise of global temperatures. “Mangroves and climate change are intimately linked together,” Han said.

Just outside of the Myeik city limits, Han has her own pet project that she hopes will help with future conservation efforts on the Tanintharyi coast: a 324-hectare (800-acre) plot of mangroves, allocated to her supervision by former president Thein Sein. She envisions turning it into an academic reserve planted with a variety of mangrove species native to Myanmar that would allow students and researchers to study the country’s mangroves all in one place.

But even her reserve isn’t immune to the pressures facing Tanintharyi’s mangroves. Nearby brick factories have been covertly entering the forest and chopping down trees to fire their kilns, she said. Inside the reserve, the hacked-off trunks of harvested mangroves are visible.

From the outside, the mangroves look lush and green.

Greater crested terns (Thalasseus bergii) winter in the Myeik Archipelago. Photo by Christoph Zockler.
Greater crested terns (Thalasseus bergii) winter in the Myeik Archipelago. Photo by Christoph Zockler.

Citations

Connette, G., Oswald, P., Songer, M., Leimgruber, P. (2016). Mapping Distinct Forest Types Improves Overall Forest Identification Based on Multi-Spectral Landsat Imagery for Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region. Remote Sensing 8:882.

Giri C, Ochieng E, Tieszen LL, Zhu Z, Singh A, Loveland T, Masek J, Duke N (2011). Status and distribution of mangrove forests of the world using earth observation satellite data (version 1.3, updated by UNEP-WCMC). Global Ecology and Biogeography 20: 154-159. doi: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00584.x . Data URL: http://data.unep-wcmc.org/datasets/4

Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.” Science 342 (15 November): 850–53. Data available on-line from:http://earthenginepartners.appspot.com/science-2013-global-forest. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on December 20, 2017. www.globalforestwatch.org

Banner image: A boat load of cut mangroves. High-quality charcoal made from mangroves is exported to Thailand. Photo by Christoph Zockler.

Benjamin Graham is a journalist living in North Carolina. He writes about conservation, politics and birds.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler
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