“In the past the surrounding forests were very green and thick, but since the big companies started logging, a lot of the forest has been cut down,“ says U Win Nyunt, a 52-year old a shifting cultivation farmer from the Bayo Yoma, Central Myanmar.
“The river in our village is drying up. We have difficulty finding drinking water.”
Clean water is one of the many benefits forests provide people, a benefit understood by rural communities, but repeatedly ignored in the development rush. Carefully planned and executed, this development can bring much-needed social and economic benefits to the people of Myanmar, but, if it proceeds unchecked, threatens Myanmar’s natural wealth, a critical foundation for the very progress the country seeks.
Some of the direct economic value of nature’s products and services can easily be calculated, for example, logging value of timber. However, nature also provides other important benefits that don’t usually end up on balance sheets, including clean, fresh water, climate regulation, livelihoods, and protection from natural disasters.
Wae Ma Gite village, near the Dawei Peninsula, has over 40 households who depend on mangroves. Villagers make a living catching fish, crab, prawns and mussel but the mangroves are far more than a fishing ground. They also offer protection from coastal storms that may become increasingly frequent and violent under a changing climate.
However, these too are shrinking.
“People often come to buy land around this area” says U Kyi Win, a 57 years old fisherman. “I’m worried that the rich people from town will buy the land in the mangroves to make prawn farms, and I don’t think they know the value as we do. They will only care about their business.”
“Our survival depends on these mangroves.” says U Aung Ngwe, fisherman and father of 12. “We do what we can to protect them. Sometimes strangers come here to cut down the trees for charcoal. We say, ‘go back!‘”
The challenge facing Myanmar, and many other countries across Asia, is how to develop without depleting nature and the benefits it provides. How can a country ensure its natural capital is not over-exploited or degraded in exchange for short-term economic gains?
“The solution is to take stock of the nature you have, the benefits stemming from it and assess its value,” says Hanna Helsingen, Green Economy Programme Manager, WWF Myanmar. “Only then can governments make informed and sustainable development decisions. Myanmar has taken the first critical steps in this process.”
At the request of the Myanmar government, WWF and partners have conducted the first ever national natural capital assessment, looking at what Myanmar has in its natural bank account and the benefits provided.
“This is an important step for any country,” says Sai Nay Won Myint, Green Economy Programme Officer, WWF Myanmar. “However it is essential for Myanmar, the second most vulnerable country to climate change globally.”
Floods, droughts and coastal storms, including the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 which killed more than 130,000 people, prove just how vulnerable Myanmar is to the effects of climate change.
WWF’s natural capital assessment showed that one of the best ways for a country to protect itself is to harness nature’s defenses, from forests which reduce flooding downstream to the protective coastal mangroves.
“We have a saying,” says U Myo Win, from Phaung Taw Village. “That weather and climate depend on the forest. I believe it is true.”
“As Myanmar goes through its historic transition, the well-being of its people will be tied to how sustainably they coexist with and use their natural capital,” says Nirmal Bhagabati, Natural Capital Scientist, WWF-US.
“In many countries around the world, we are seeing a renewed appreciation of the importance of nature for the welfare of their citizens. Myanmar has a chance to get things right while so much of its natural capital still remains.”
WWF is continuing to work on assessing Myanmar’s natural capital, moving from what natural capital Myanmar has, to how much it has and what is the cost if lost.
“If a forest provides clean drinking water to 100 villages, what is the cost if that forest is lost and the government must provide a water purification facility?” says Helsingen.
Such assessments place nature into a language understood in the commercial world. For some however nature’s values need no translation.
“Since I arrived in 2000, there’s been a lot of logging in the area.,” says Monk U Pyinnyar Wuntha, Abbot of the village monastery and quiet environmental champion.
“I don’t have the authority to stop them but I tell loggers not to pass through our village with the logs. They can carry them by plane or by boat, but not through our village.”
Kalone Htar village is hidden in the forests and mountains, north of Dawei. Five years ago, a dam was proposed on the Kalone Htar river.
Led by Monk U Pyinnyar Wuntha, the villagers stood together against the dam and were successful. The village now welcome its visitors with two signs: one reads “No Dam”, and the other “Kalone Htar will survive as long as mother nature survives.”
Even with protection from Monk U Pyinnyar Wuntha, the river has been drying more each year.
If Myanmar is to keep its vast treasure trove of natural assets, environmental protection must be driven by the national and regional governments, using a ‘green filter’ on all development decisions.
“We have to love mother nature and appreciate how it benefits human beings. Especially now that nature is at threat.” Monk U Pyinnyar Wuntha.
Discover more on www.myanmarnaturalcapital.org and read full report: Natural Connections: how natural capital supports Myanmar’s people and economy