In addition to the illegal harvesting of mangrove wood for charcoal and firewood, and clearing of mangrove forests for rice paddy fields, the development of aquaculture is yet another big driver of mangrove deforestation in Myanmar.

U Zaw Hein, a member of parliament and a native of Kadan, an island neighboring Kala, says that aquaculture poses a bigger treat as large swaths of mangrove forest are cleared at any given time, and are not allowed to regrow.

A crab that can be caught and sold near the Myeik area in Myanmar. Photo by Victoria Milko.
A crab that can be caught and sold near the Myeik area in Myanmar. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Since shrimp farming and aquaculture require saltwater — and mangroves grow in regions where saltwater and freshwater meet — opportunities for profit often conflict with ecological resources. Mangroves in other areas of Myanmar such as in the Irrawaddy Delta and western Rakhine state have been cleared for aquaculture, but the development of a shrimp farm in the southern province of Tanintharyi is new.

According to U Zaw Hein and villagers living in Kala, there are only two aquaculture facilities; the first was developed on his island in 2015.

Questionable practices

When U San Maung planned to convert the existing mangrove and mountain forests into a shrimp farm, his business partners approached people in the nearby village of Masan Pa to sell their land. One of the villagers was Ma Aye Po, 35 at the time, to whom they offered about $6,670 for her nearly 3 hectares (7 acres) of rubber plantation.

Ma Aye Po asked for double that, but finally settled for approximately $7,100. Other villagers were also selling their land, she says, and she felt it best to follow suit. In retrospect, she says, it felt like the company bullied her. “It was better to accept his offer, or risk having our land confiscated,” she says.

While most other villagers who had forest land or plantations in the area where the company wanted to build its aquaculture facility, nobody had ownership over the mangroves. That’s because Myanmar’s forestry department governs mangroves.

According to U Zaw Hein, the government never approved the new aquaculture project. Forestry law dictates that the department needs to give a recommendation for these types of projects, U Zaw Hein says. “The recommendation is made only if the project has no impacts on environmental conservation. If anyone followed the law, this type of lawless behavior would not happen,” he says.

Under Myanmar’s vacant and fallow land law, anyone occupying or using “vacant, fallow, or virgin” land has to apply for an official land permit, or else they face eviction or up to two years in jail.

The regional government in Tanintharyi went ahead to approve such permits for companies wanting to develop the aquaculture projects without consulting with the forestry department, says U Myint Maung, the Tanintharyi chief.

Deforestation impacts

Already, this mangrove deforestation for aquaculture development is impacting villagers. A man in Masan Pa, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation from the aquaculture company, makes a living from catching crabs.

He used to go into the mangrove area now under development for his daily catch, but says the company will no longer allow him in. (The company in question could not be reached for comment.) “We want to complain about this hardship because we have no place for crab fishing,” he says. “But we don’t have anyone to lead or organize us for the complaint.”

In the nearby village of Kyunsu, an aquaculture development project led by a local tycoon named U Hla Than involved the clearance of 170 hectares (420 acres) of land, some of which used to be mangrove forest. U Hla Than obtained the land nearly 15 years ago under the previous military regime in Myanmar.

He says he sees aquaculture as a necessity and a means to reduce overfishing from the sea, but adds he did not formally seek approval from the national government, which would only have approved the project if the forestry department also gave it the green light. “But it would take time, because it’s a complicated procedure,” says U Hla Than.

U Myint Maung says he believes there is potential for more aquaculture projects to be developed in Tanintharyi, which would put the remaining mangroves at further risk. “We are thinking to impose some restrictions,” he says. “For example, a business or company will have to maintain or preserve at least 30 percent of the mangrove in their project area, or replant at least 30 percent of the project area in another available vacant and fallow land.”

Scientific concerns

Christoph Zöckler, a coastal biodiversity specialist with the Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung for Nature Conservation and Environmental Protection in Germany, says this is the wrong way to approach these projects. Because Tanintharyi is home to the majority of Myanmar’s remaining mangroves, Zöckler says, regional governments and officials should try to keep it that way. “We want to keep them for the sake of local people, for diversity. We don’t want to jeopardize that with any kind of half-hearted deals with developers,” he says.

Zöckler and his collaborators in Myanmar, including Fauna & Flora International, are looking to create a biosphere reserve that would cover more than 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of land in Tanintharyi and would encompass mangroves and mudflats in many of the islands. “Aquaculture has no place in that,” he says.

Jean Yong, a plant biochemist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says the biodiversity of mangroves in Tanintharyi is “too precious to be sacrificed” for land-based aquaculture. Perhaps one way to sustainably develop aquaculture in Tanintharyi, he says, is for businesses to develop offshore aquaculture systems that do not require the loss of mangrove forests.

As of mid-March, after prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi visited Tanintharyi and spoke with locals, the aquaculture projects in Tanintharyi have come under greater scrutiny. During her visit, Suu Kyi spoke with locals, who complained about the impacts of aquaculture on their daily lives.  The national and regional parliaments are working to stop current government projects or take action against the existing aquaculture businesses.

With additional reporting by Victoria Milko.

Banner image: A coastal village near the Myeik area in Myanmar. Photo by Victoria Milko. Photo by Victoria Milko.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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