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Green growth in Myanmar: an emerging democracy’s vision for future development

Myanmar is home to one of Southeast Asia's largest expanses of natural forest, but for how much longer?

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Myanmar’s slow economic growth has contributed to the preservation of much of its forest cover. Jean-Marie Hullot

Myanmar’s slow economic growth has contributed to the preservation of much of its forest cover. Jean-Marie Hullot

BOGOR, Indonesia (9 January, 2013)_Flying directly to the capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, I couldn’t help but think how much it looked like a movie set: eight lane cement highways flanked every kilometre by a large new hotel or ministry building, but almost no cars, people, or private residences to be seen anywhere. On the bus-ride to Yangon, this ambitious vision for the capital was starkly contrasted by a sparsely populated rice paddy farming landscape, flanked by completely deforested hills dotted with teak seedlings.

Change is coming to Myanmar — the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma — at a rapid pace. With a burgeoning influx of outside interests looking to tap into Myanmar’s newly accessible resource wealth, the government faces some challenging choices: how to achieve its stated objective of green growth, while balancing the needs of foreign investors, preserving the environment and maintaining rural development.

Green Growth and Green Energy Strategy – a signal for hope…

It was with these thoughts in mind that I travelled to the emerging democracy to attend the second national forum on “Green Growth and Green Energy (GEGG) bringing together leaders in the private sector, government and research to discuss sustainable development pathways.

Myanmar has been under military rule in one form or another since 1962, however its leadership has recently made a range of concessions within the political and economic system, resulting in rapid improvement of relations with major powers like the United States, Japan and European Union countries. This is bringing a sudden influx of interested private investors and donors looking to tap into the country’s rich natural resources (indeed there is now a business class flight three times a week between Japan and Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon).

…but is this possible given the conspicuous absence of key donors and NGOs?

Despite my impressions of the countryside between the capital and Yangon, Myanmar’s slow economic growth has contributed to the preservation of much of its forest cover (over 49%), making Myanmar home to one of Southeast Asia’s largest expanses of natural forest. It was therefore reassuring to have Myanmar’s vice president Dr. Sai Mauk Kham indicate that the nation was committed to a path of “green growth”, in which “resource-intensive growth pathways should not be an option”. Furthermore, he emphasised that the age of ‘growth first, clean up later’ is over.

However, when I looked at the list of invited speakers and the panels, there appeared to be some major gaps that might raise concerns of whether the natural environment and rural stakeholders were adequately represented.

In 2011 this same conference received significant support from the development and conservation community (as well as the Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi). While this year’s event was internationally sponsored and two international conservation organisations were represented, most of the major donors and regional conservation organisations were conspicuously absent.

Myanmar’s slow economic growth has contributed to the preservation of much of its forest cover, making it home to one of Southeast Asia’s largest expanses of natural forest.

Donors and outside NGOs can never replace the national institutions responsible for delivering the services and enforcing the laws that make rural development and forest conservation possible, however they do have a lot of experience (not all good) with how other countries have done so more effectively (or where they have failed). Whatever the reason for their poor representation at this meeting, decision makers in this country need to hear from a range of perspectives in order to more effectively guide the nation’s development in a sustainable and equitable manner.

In contrast, the forum organisers appear to be engaging to a greater degree with the private sector – and a range of international utility, engineering, and private investment firms were well represented. These are clearly necessary partners in any country’s development, but this forum cannot claim to be able to represent the interests of the vast majority of rural Myanmar residents no matter how well intentioned the organizers of the forum might be.

Forest stakeholder voices highlight challenges and opportunities

There were many parallel sessions, so I couldn’t attend them all, however there was one panel discussion coordinated by RECOFTC (The Center for People and Forests) — a capacity building NGO based in Thailand – that offered some valuable glimpses into the challenges facing regular citizens of Myanmar.

Some of the most interesting insights came from the representatives of several community forestry user groups from Kachin State and the Ayeyarwady Region who had been invited to share their perspectives on what undermined community forestry and what green growth represented to them.

Ms. Daw Tin Tin Saw and Daw Khin Mya had travelled from Kachin State in far northern Myanmar to share the experiences of the Pin He village forest user group. This community established a 1300-acre community forest plantation in 2009, for which they received certification from the Forest Department in 2011.

This land also contains deposits of gemstones that the community would occasionally sell to the people associated with a nearby hydropower station. These businesspeople then tried to convince the community to allow them to mine the gemstones, and when this failed, they submitted a formal request for a land concession to the state government of these same community forest lands.

Despite local community reliance on forests, community forestry has limited basis in Myanmar law. Daniel Julie

Despite local community reliance on forests, community forestry has limited basis in Myanmar law. Daniel Julie

Unfortunately, community forestry has limited basis in Myanmar law, and the community, together with the Forestry Department, had great difficulty in convincing the state-level government to recognise their claim.

Another example was the Ayeyarwady Region forest user group, who decided to reforest their mangrove area in 2000.  After 12 years, the trees are now supplying more than sufficient amounts of fuel wood, poles and timber to meet local needs, permitting a surplus to be sold to pay for community education and health infrastructure. These plantations have also increased the availability of fish, crabs and other edible animals that are harvested by the local community. Most noteworthy was that during cyclone Nargis in 2008, the mangrove plantation helped to reduce the impact of flooding on the community.

All speakers, as well as several audience members shared their concerns over the challenges posed by limited staff and resources available for forest extension and enforcement activities, and highlighted several contributions that effective forest user groups have had on local livelihoods, forest conservation and general security. Indeed, both forest user groups invited to this session were cited by the Forest Department as particularly helpful in disseminating messages to neighboring communities, resulting in the establishment of many additional community forestry groups.

We hope that policy makers take note…

But while these valuable insights were shared during an animated discussion in a room almost filled to capacity with forestry stakeholders, it is not clear to what extent the needs of rural Myanmar will be recognised and embraced by policy makers given the onslaught of promises delivered by the proponents of technological and infrastructural development.

For example, will the GEGG’s proposed development of 10 ‘centers of excellence for green growth technologies and approaches’ over the next three years, include centers aimed at sharing the newest methods and technologies for the natural resources conservation, rural agricultural extension, education and health sectors? Such issues barely seemed to feature in the keynote speeches.

I think it is fitting to end with one of the Kachin State forest user group representatives views on what forests and “green growth” meant to her: “The forests provide us with water for the farms and protect them from siltation…they also supply the dams with water; if the country is greener, this will be better for our livelihoods”.

As we give the infrastructural planners the opportunity to pursue their dreams of developing Asia’s newest capital city, let’s hope that the policy makers remember the need to manage this nation’s natural capital — power, water and food — that will be needed to sustain this dream of urbanisation.

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