Civil Society, Free Democratic Expression Essential to Dealing With Myanmar’s Environment Issues: Swedish Ambassador

By The Irrawaddy 7 June 2019

NAYPYITAW—Sweden’s national day falls on June 6, one day after World Environment Day. To mark the occasion, The Irrawaddy’s Naypyitaw Bureau Chief Htet Naing Zaw spoke to Staffan Herrstorm, the Swedish ambassador to Myanmar, about his take on Myanmar’s environmental issues, and what we could learn from Sweden’s experience with hydropower plants, the effects of climate change and minority groups’ involvement in environmental policies.

Climate change is common everywhere, as you can experience here in Southeast Asia already. Pollution is a big issue especially in urban areas. How do we solve the problem of waste management in big cities?

First of all, awareness is key. I think it had a huge impact when we started to realize that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if nothing is done. And that sends a signal to every single individual: we need to stop using single-use plastic straws, bottles, plastic bags, which are so unnecessary. Secondly, we need to have systems so we can separate different types of waste, and then follow this message—try to reuse and recycle. This of course isn’t something we can just do in one day, but we need to start here and now, and we need to start with ourselves. And that’s a key reason for us to highlight that on our national day which, by the way, takes place the day after World Environment Day, and two days before World Ocean Day.

We should also remember that global warming is a threat that is directly related to the survival of our planet and us human beings, and we will, during this national day celebration, screen a message from the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg who has just this last year become a voice, a representative for the young generation which is telling us, ‘Now it starts. It’s time to act. The facts are there and you need to address global warming and climate change.’ And of course, we are deeply concerned that the Paris Agreement has been jeopardized by the decision of the United States to leave it. We need more multilateral cooperation, more countries coming together, not less. And we are certainly looking forward to seeing Myanmar invest even more in renewable energy, and we think that’s the future.

What is popular here in Myanmar in terms of fighting climate change or environmental conservation is the idea of planting trees. We’d like to ask how you do it in Sweden, and if you think this is a practical, viable option to fight climate change and environmental conservation?

Well, this is definitely one of several methods to fight climate change, since the forests are absorbing climate-affecting gases. We experienced during the 19th century in Sweden a deforestation that was overwhelming, and we started to address that in the early 20th century in several ways, one being that there was a requirement to replant when you had been logging. I think civil society—the environmental movement—played a significant role in increasing awareness about this. So I would definitely recommend all countries address this, but it’s important to do it in a way where individuals and communities feel that their community rights and land rights are not violated, that they can benefit from combined forestry and agriculture. We have seen sometimes challenging examples when efforts to preserve forests have meant bans for communities and ethnic groups to earn their livelihoods, and that’s not a sustainable way to deal with forestry, because then people must be able to live. And we have seen, in my country, that it’s been possible both to have, from an economic point of view, very successful industry using products form forests at the same time as we’ve been able to preserve the really crucially important forests. You can do both, and you need to do both, because if you don’t then preservation will eventually fail.

I can’t underline enough the importance of moving to a fossil [fuel]-free economy. I mean coal power is not the way forward, and there are now so many viable alternatives coming up. I mentioned renewable energy before, of course we have seen solar (is) developing, becoming cheaper, and of course there is a huge potential for that in many countries, and particularly in this part of the world.

There are environmental challenges with many sources of energy, including hydropower. We have a lot of that in Sweden, but it’s not without it’s problems. We have controversies, both in our country and here, around that. But overall I want to welcome the new national environment policy, and the new Myanmar climate change policy. I think we see and really want to encourage this kind of growing awareness which makes a lot of sense in a country which is particularly so prone to the disastrous effects of global warming.

You’ve probably read about the problems Myanmar has with the Myitsone hydropower project. At the same time, we need electricity. How do you think we could find a balance between our needs while mitigating the environmental impacts?

Well, first and foremost, are democratic processes, where you listen to your citizens. That’s what we learned during the development of hydropower in Sweden. We needed to listen to the Sami population (a Finno-Ugric native population in northern parts of Scandinavia). In the beginning their interests were neglected, their rights were sometimes abused, and there were projects, particularly on major rivers, which were very controversial in the end. Finally, after many long debates where various parties had different opinions, the decision was made to save those [rivers]. Many other [rivers] were exploited, but those were saved. And this is what democracy must look like. Democracy shouldn’t only be a question of voting every fifth year, or fourth year in our case, it must include consultation, listening to minorities—and majorities sometimes—and free debate. I want to express the importance of free democratic expression when it comes to the environment.

What are your views on Myanmar’s democratic transition process? And what is the role of Sweden in supporting this transition to democratic development?

Myanmar has changed enormously if you compare it to where this country was ten years ago, and now the democratic transition is ongoing. I know that now there is a constitutional review which could result in a more fully fledged democratic electoral system, which of course would be most welcome. The [role] of this process is of course to give all people of this country, whatever ethnic group that they belong to, the rights that they deserve to decide the future of the country. The peace process is fundamental to secure that, but freedom of expression [is important] as well. We have expressed concern from time to time over issues, and the chilling signals that have been sent through various decisions—the court case against the Reuters journalists in particular. I think for development it’s crucial that you widen the space and not restrict it. The role of Sweden is to be here as a member of the European Union—a partner, a supporting partner, a concerned partner, also expressing our concerns when we feel that’s necessary. But we’re here supporting civil society, supporting important processes including a more inclusive peace process, and we’re also supporting the health sector where we feel immediate results are achieved through our support, and through the European Union, and through similar engagement in the education sector.

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