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Myanmar losing forests at fast pace, say reports

Publication Date : 06-12-2013


Myanmar is facing galloping deforestation, losing forests to oil palm and rubber plantations, while the mangroves of its Irrawaddy Delta have shrunk in area by a whopping 64.2 per cent in 33 years, two new reports have shown.

Deforestation In The Ayeyarwady Delta And The Conservation Implications Of An Internationally Engaged Myanmar - a study by the National University of Singapore (NUS) - said an average of 51 sq km of mangroves a year were lost from 1978 to 2011. Thus, the Irrawaddy Delta's mangroves shrank from 2,623 sq km to 938 sq km in that period.

The study, published on November 21 in the online journal Global Environmental Change, used cutting-edge technology to map the depleting mangroves.

It noted that unlike in the Mekong Delta where mangroves have been destroyed by aquaculture, in the Irrawaddy Delta, they were lost to harvesting for fuel wood and conversion into paddy fields. Aquaculture is still almost non-existent in the area.

The delta has a population of close to eight million. But it is also an area of high biodiversity, with more than 30 endangered species, the report said.

The mangroves also act as a buffer against sea-level rise and the kind of storm surge during Cyclone Nargis in 2008 that killed 130,000 people in the region.

There continues to be debate over the issue, but many experts believe the effect of the cyclone's 3.5m storm surge would have been mitigated had the delta's mangrove cover been intact.

The digital mapping that revealed the poor state of the mangroves went a step further than two previous papers that had also pointed to their depletion, said lead author Edward Webb, a professor at NUS' Department of Biological Sciences.

"What we've done is a very solid analysis that shows the rate of deforestation is faster than previously thought, and (the mangroves) are definitely under more threat than was expected from previous studies," he said.

The report warned that if nothing was done to arrest the loss, the mangroves may disappear completely in a few decades. Worldwide, 20 per cent to 35 per cent of mangrove forests were lost from 1980 to 2007, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.

A separate study by United States-based non-governmental organisation Forest Trends, released last week, found that from 2011 to the middle of this year, a total of 2.1 million hectares of plantation concessions were granted to private firms by the Myanmar government, mostly in Kachin state and the Tenasserim Division bordering Thailand.

The report charged that despite official claims of sourcing timber only from state-managed forests or tree plantations, it was "highly likely that a significant percentage of Myanmar's wood exports are sourced from natural forests - from land conversion as well as logging concessions".

Most of Myanmar's remaining natural forests are in ethnic borderlands particularly along the Thai and Chinese borders, where there has long been conflict, with little or no government control over resources which are often the domain of local armed groups.

Figures vary, but earlier this year, Myanmar's official Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee in a report to Parliament said the country's forest cover had fallen to 24 per cent by 2008.

Commenting on the two reports, Dr Peter Cutter, landscape conservation manager at independent conservation organisation World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) Greater Mekong programme, however, told The Straits Times there was still "reason to be hopeful for a change of course in Myanmar".

He noted that in the WWF's meetings with senior Myanmar officials, there was an acknowledgement of the damage done to the country's natural resources during four decades of dictatorship and crony capitalism, and a grasp of the link between protecting natural resources and the stability and development of the country.

"It is not just lip service," he said. "They are engaging in more than just a showcase way."


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