The Mangrove Forests: Burma’s Best Bio-defense
SEPTEMBER, 2008 – VOLUME 16 NO.9
U Ohn is the general secretary of the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), one of a handful of Burmese nongovernmental organizations dedicated to protecting the country’s forests
Environmentalist U Ohn (Illustration: Harn Lay/
Question: Cyclone Nargis destroyed many mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy delta. What was the impact of the storm on biodiversity in the region?
Answer: The cyclone caused a tidal surge which was up to 20 feet (6 meters) high. Almost 100 square miles (260 square km) of land was flooded and turned into a virtual sea. Meinmahla Island, for instance, was completely covered by seawater, but then resurfaced after the cyclone. The biodiversity of the mangrove forests, sea-grass beds and coral reefs was severely impacted. A large number of plants and animals, including trees, fish and even turtles and crocodiles, were killed in the deluge.
Q: What consequences do you foresee if the destruction of the mangrove forests continues?
A: If the mangrove forests disappear, the impact of similar disasters in the future will be immense.
The Burmese coastline is about 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) long, and mangrove forests exist all along the coast, from Arakan State to Tenasserim Division. They are bio-defenses, defending us from natural disasters. The mangrove forests and coral reefs also protect each other. If one is damaged, the other is also affected.
These days, people talk a lot about “food security.” They cut down the forests to make farms to breed fish and prawns. To some extent this makes sense, but you have to consider the environmental costs. The fish and prawn ponds are very harmful. Digging the ponds and feeding the fish and prawns pollute the environment. They also use chemicals to prevent the spread of diseases, and these chemicals are toxic to other organisms.
The coral reefs are also very important—they provide habitats for fish. One square kilometer (about 0.4 square mile) of coral reef can support enough life to feed 1,000 people. I have studied and collected data on this.
People are destroying these valuable resources. They destroy mangrove forests and they grow other things; they change the environment for other purposes. People say they’re doing it to promote ecotourism—building jetties, developing villages.
During Cyclone Nargis, people who lived in areas defended by mangrove forests survived. In Pyapon Township, where we grew more than 3,000 acres of mangrove forests over the past 10 years with Japanese aid, villagers from 26 villages escaped death during the cyclone. Cattle were spared from danger and only a few houses were damaged.
More recently, I started replanting in a reserved forest area in Ka Don Ka Ni with German support. But we weren’t able to finish the job. In that area, almost 80 percent of the people from 12 villages were killed.
Q: How long would it take and what would it cost to bring the forests back to a healthier state?
A: It’s safe to say that it would take at least 5 to 10 years and cost millions of dollars. That is why I am still struggling to find the financial support we need. The money could come from governments, such as those of the European Union countries, or from multinational corporations such as [French oil company] Total or companies from Korea, China, India or Thailand, which are all exploiting Burma’s natural resources. They should fund us—they have the money.
Q: If mangrove forests are not replanted in time, how will it affect biodiversity?
A: If the mangrove forests are destroyed, food chains for fish and prawns are degraded as well. Then the number of fish, prawns and crabs inhabiting the coastal area will decrease. Some sea animals cannot live without mangrove forests. For instance, crabs lay their eggs in the sea, but the newly born crabs come back to the mangrove forests. There are also land animals depending on these forests, such as monkeys and birds. Herons, cranes, crocodiles, otters, wild dogs and even snakes depend on the forests.
Just two or three years after replanting one mangrove forest, river catfish returned to the area to make their habitats. Villagers said it had been years since they had seen any catfish. The river catfish eat fallen fruit from mangrove trees. This is an example of successful replanting, and it could help to promote genuine ecotourism.
But at present, “ecotourism” is first and foremost about economic development. They destroy nature to put up buildings. But ecotourism should be in harmony with nature and deepening people’s love for nature and their desire to preserve it.
Q: The success of your replanting efforts depends on the cooperation of local communities. Is this difficult, given the level of poverty in Burma?
A: The major purpose of our project is to re-grow the mangrove forests. But as we have to cooperate with local people we should create better conditions for their lives, making sure they receive proper food, shelter and clothing.
The mangrove forests contain medicinal plants which can’t grow anywhere else. For instance, taw chauk pin (Limonia monophylla), migyaung kunbut (Hygrophila obovata) and other rare species can be used for medicine. Drug companies should assist local people and set up funds for them, so they can cultivate these plants as a form of value-added farming.
I also operate aquaculture farms, because I get some funding for that. This work has been successful. I have tested self-reliant farming methods [that don’t require chemicals]. But I don’t encourage the attitude of some businessmen, who are driven only by greed, seeking self-profit and ignoring the negative impact on others.
Q: What kinds of problems do you have in your relations with businessmen?
There are some conflicting interests. For instance, while we are replanting trees in the mangrove forest, businessmen are encouraging people to clear the forest and invest in fish and prawn ponds. We are struggling with this problem. We have to educate the people. The state and the authorities should try to control these businessmen, because it is a matter of national interest.
Another thing I want to mention is that according to estimates and studies by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and United Nations Environment Program, by 2020, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will be living within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of the coast. The main reason is that this gives them easy access to food. With mangrove forests, they will also have access to wood, bamboo and medicinal plants. If we are going to have more people living by the sea, we need national planning to deal with this increase.
Q: Do you receive support from the government?
A: We have to acquire approval from the national Forestry Ministry and Forestry Department. In 1995, the government issued the Community Forestry Instructions (CFI), a law which allows villagers to grow forests in their neighborhood for firewood and charcoal. We are working to replant the mangrove forest under the CFI. We are acting as a bridge between local communities and the government, and that is why we have been successful. The stakeholders in this project include the authorities, local people, merchants, beggars, monks and so on. The most important thing is to encourage harmony among them.
The government is responsible for maintaining fairness and preventing overexploitation of the forest, while we do the work. We do not have any privileges or power. We create interest and willingness among the local population. The government authorities give us some support. That is the way we are working.
Q: Is there any government mechanism to preserve the mangrove forests?
When the government received loans from the World Bank to promote paddy farming, they cut down forests. They didn’t understand the impact, so they launched the Paddy I and Paddy II schemes. Many Asian governments did likewise. These projects last just 3 or 5 years, or at most 10 years, and everything is damaged.
Now we are facing all of these messes. Burma was not hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, but it was badly hurt by the cyclone. It has opened our eyes. I am sad to say it, but this has been a blessing in disguise. This disaster gives us an opportunity to educate and increase awareness. The people and the authorities should learn lessons from this disaster.