New drone analysis highlights conservation challenges in Myanmar

Drone survey of Mein-ma-hla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary (MKWS)

[Editor’s Note: The drone survey was conducted by Fauna and Flora International (FFI).]

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YANGON, Myanmar – Conservation work in Myanmar has been met with various challenges such as limited funding, an unstable political situation and poor management plans for forest reserves. Now, a recent analysis of a drone survey has found that the last remaining mangrove breeding ground in Myanmar’s delta region actually has very few mangrove trees.

The first-ever drone analysis of Mein-ma-hla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary (MKWS) in Myanmar’s southern Irrawaddy Delta was conducted in mid-October by Fauna and Flora International (FFI). The results of that analysis, which have not yet been publicly distributed, were shared with Mongabay.

First-ever drone survey image from MKWS showed that the island is covered with Phoenix paludosa instead of mangrove trees. However, certain areas within the sanctuary with endangered mangrove tree species have been identified and therefore have a higher chance of being protected by illegal logging. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International.
First-ever drone survey image from MKWS shows that the island is covered with mostly Phoenix paludosa instead of mangrove trees. Courtesy of Fauna & Flora International.

According to the drone survey findings from the approximately 53-square-mile wetland mangrove reserve , mangrove trees are largely spread around the outskirts of the island and the surrounding areas of 6 out of 7 of the stations that belong to the Forestry Department.

The majority of the island is actually covered with Phoenix paludosa, also called Mangrove Date Palm, a species of flowering plants in the palm family. The drone footage did help identify the location of larger and endangered mangrove trees within the sanctuary. The areas within the sanctuary with endangered mangrove tree species that were identified may now have a higher chance of being protected from illegal logging.

The findings have sent a shock wave through the local forestry department and Myanmar’s conservation experts who FFI shared the research with. The forestry department could not be reached for comment.

“The situation is very devastating, it was clear that all large mangroves as been removed. Nargis (a 2008 cyclone) had a big impact on the bigger tress, but it’s clear the major impact is from firewood extraction,” said Frank Momberg, director of FFI Myanmar.

A drone image shows people in boats loaded with wood inside the MKWS mangrove sanctuary in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International
A drone image shows people in boats loaded with wood inside the MKWS mangrove sanctuary in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

Drone footage collected by FFI clearly shows fishing boats inside MKWS wildlife sanctuary with stockpiles of wood carefully loaded on their boats. Residents of surrounding villages also routinely collect wood in the area.

“With very limited law enforcement, patrolling and managing of the the sanctuary is a very challenging,” said Momberg. “But now we will focus on protecting the core area so there is no further degradation.”

According to Momberg, in order to save MKWS, a detailed restoration plan and major investment are needed, but at the moment neither the government nor FFI have the resources to conduct significant restoration projects.

Local efforts

Despite troubles such as funding for tree planting and obtaining land from local authorities, raising awareness among villagers and the country’s unstable political situation remain the biggest challenges for conservation efforts.

U Htay Lay has participated in mangrove tree workshops all across the world including India, China and Thailand. Originally from the small town of Bogale in the Delta region, he worked for years as an officer for the forestry department in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.

“I’m happy to be back here,” said U Htay Lay, on his way last month to the land that he and his team bought and built with their own hands, Mangrove Service Network Island, or MSN Island. The island just 58 acres and lies due north of MKWS on River Bogale.

U Htay Lay and his team bought the island back in 2012 from a rice farmer for $2,350 in order to avoid having to transfer the land back to the government.

“It was low ground land and can no longer be used to grow rice, so we wanted to use it as a base for conservation work,” he explained. Other than preserving the trees already on the island, they have actively been growing ten different species of mangroves and fresh water trees on the island.

The purpose of the island is to use it as a nursing ground for mangroves and as an education center. They also launched a campaign to educate the approximately 75 percent of villagers who rely on fishing for survival. The campaign’s message is simple: if you protect the forest, you protect the fish and your livelihood.

They’ve also worked to prevent villagers from coming to the island to collect wood by connecting with them and educating them that it is a private land and off limits.

“Funding is always difficult, but we’ve been lucky with funds from various embassies in Myanmar, and we keep things cheap by building it with our own hands,” said U Htay Lay. The network also generates income from nursing certain mangroves for various conversation groups across the country.

Regional conservation work

Other conservation work is being carried out throughout Myanmar. CARE, an international humanitarian agency with long term development projects, has been establishing community forestry in Rakhine state in the northwest of Myanmar since 1997.

“We chose Rakhine state due to its environmental damage and  because it is one of the less developed state in Myanmar,” said Nilar Shwe, a program director for CARE Myanmar.

According to a preliminary analysis released by International Organisation of Migration, Rakhine state has lost an estimated 57,480 hectares of mangroves between 1988 and 2015. The loss of mangrove forest is causing severe river bank erosion. Over 100 homes in northern Rakhine had to be relocated in July this year, but over the last decades over 500 households and more than 100 acres of farmland have fallen victim to river bank erosion, according to a press release from the President Office of Myanmar.

The path to recovery is far from simple. Daw Nilar Shwe says that extensive work needs to be done before even planting a single tree.

“We have to form a community forest management group with the villagers, and use that group to apply for land from forestry department, and obtain a certificate to use the land by local authorize,” Shwe said. But after every step is completed, successful applicants are allowed to use the land for 30 years without taxes or fees.

Then the work can finally begin.

“We train villagers to plant trees for firewood, timber but also for environmental protection in the community forest,” Shwe said. Many people in the Rakhine region are landless, but according to regulations for forming a community forest, all members must have once acre of land. So far the project has been initiated in 120 villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung district in Northern Rakhine state, at a cost of $600,000 per year with funding from the EU, AusAID and various other organizations.

Regional tensions

The most difficult part of this project, according to Shwe, is the uncertain political situation in Myanmar. She says that a lot of the community forest was distorted in the 2012 Rakhine riots, in which at least 82 people were killed, 4,600 homes burned and more than 22,000 people were displaced due to a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist community, according to the government.

Nine police officers were killed and four wounded in Maungdaw, Rakhine State in early October this year, which triggered another series of violence leading to a lock down in the district. The Myanmar military has killed about 69 members of what it has described as a Rohingya Muslim militant group since the conflict began, according to Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-controlled newspaper, on November 15.

Ostensibly, the conflict has had a serious impact on conservation efforts.

“We had to suspend our implementation in that area since October,” said Shwe. “Many of the community forests are shared between villagers of different religion at our projects sites in Northern Rakhine, but due to all these conflicts, the trust between villagers are gone and will be very hard to be rebuilt again.”

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Ann Wang is a foreign correspondent and photojournalist based in Myanmar. You can find her on Instagram at AnnWang077.


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