The dark memories of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 and killed some 138,000 people, must be still haunting Myanmar's new reformist government as it redeemed its promise to ban the export of raw timber, mainly teak, with effect from April 1, 2014. Though teak forests are in the north and the delta is in the south, supposed to be protected by mangroves, they are part of the same ecosystem. Any change anywhere is bound to affect the entire system and intensify the dangers of many more Nargis-type natural calamities. From that point of view, the enforcement of the log ban is a very wise and much-awaited decision.
That it also follows an equally dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change how global warning caused by uncontrolled environmental damage is impacting every ecosystem and exposes the world, especially Asia, to the mercy of the elements, threatening people's livelihoods, altering land-use patterns, and drying up water supplies, should also serve as an example that even great journeys require a small first step. Myanmar's new regime has now shown that, after long decades of official neglect and tolerance of private rampage, it's now determined to take whatever steps are needed to save the environment and move towards a more sustainable way of growth.
Myanmar has no choice but to act tough because its challenges are great. Until now, it was the only country in the world that exported raw teak from natural forests rather than plantations. Most of it was done illegally by private loggers who enjoyed passive government support. Between 2000 and 2013, some 72 per cent of logs exported from the country was said to be illegally shipped. In some areas in the north, wide swathes of forests are being cleared to make room for oil palm and rubber plantations. While 49 per cent of the total land area is marked as forested and primary forests are said to occupy 10 per cent of it, substantial given Myanmar's sheer size, over 18 per cent of the total forest area has been lost since 1990.
At the same time, the Irrawaddy Delta is said to have lost two-thirds of its mangrove cover between 1978 and 2011, from 2,623 sq km to 938 sq km, under relentless pressure from livelihood needs, leaving coastal areas highly vulnerable to natural disasters. According to a research report from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the remaining cover might be gone, too, in the next few decades unless strict reforestation and conservation measures are taken right now. Some 7.7 million inhabitants of the delta have turned most of the mangrove forests into farmlands and fisheries, ignoring the fact that mangroves, which also host a large variety of endangered flora and fauna, are the primary line of defence against coastal erosion.
It's not going to be an easy task, though, for a country in the middle of a vigorous development initiative. While the immediate effect of the ban would be a reduction in export earnings, the new policy is expected to attract new investments from abroad in local timber industries, especially from India, the US, and Europe. And new investments would require land to build factories as well as roads, power plants, ports, and other essential infrastructure. How the impact of this new demand works out on the environment, one has to wait and see.
Myanmar is going through an unprecedented scale of transformation since opening up to the world under President Thein Sein, and is keen to support foreign direct investment (FDI) in energy, transport, agriculture, and social sectors such as education and health. Economic growth in 2013-14 is estimated at 7.5 per cent and is predicted to rise further as foreign, particularly southeast Asian interest in the country grows. Finance ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) met recently in the new Myanmarese capital of Nay Pyi Taw, signifying their support to the country's reforming regime ahead of the 2015 formation of the Asean Economic Community.
It's against this background that NUS' report should be read as a timely warning. As it points out, agro-industrial companies are taking an interest in land for large-scale plantations, replacing forests with sugar for export, for example. It says: "Thus, as seen in other developing countries, Myanmar's policy objective to promote private enterprise and increase FDI may also facilitate the transfer of control and use of land, leading to a 'foreignization of space' to investors from China, Thailand, and Malaysia."
What Myanmar needs most at this stage in its development is a strong effort to build up a reliable and scientific database of its natural resources, of which there's none at the moment, and introduce governance systems that will discourage corrupt practices. This is an area where more funding from international organisations will be required in the immediate future.