‘There is No Support From the Government’

By Nyein Nyein 19 November 2014

Burma’s emerging renewable energy sector is still undeveloped and lacking in government support, while about 65 percent of the country’s rural population is living outside of the national power grid. Many isolated communities meet their own energy needs with independently provided biomass, solar projects and small-scale hydropower. Often this assistance is supplied by non-governmental organizations focused on sustainable rural development, not from state institutions.

One such organization, the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM), has worked in Burma’s rural communities since 1993 to improve energy technology and replace fire-wood fuel with more efficient methods. The Irrawaddy spoke with REAM Secretary and co-founder Aung Myint about their people-centered approach to development and institutional challenges to sustainable change.
Question: Could you briefly explain what kinds of projects REAM supports in Burma?

Answer: We work to conserve the environment and increase awareness of renewable energy technology in developing rural communities. Our current focus is on community-based strategic environmental assessment, which we have been conducting in 17 villages along the bank of the Irrawaddy River. This project is a collaboration between REAM and the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEENet). We also have some solar power projects in Nat Mauk and Pauk, in Magwe Division, but right now we are focused on the Irrawaddy River.

The research methodology is the same for each village, whether they are educated or illiterate. We train them to conduct research on fish, trees, water flows and seasonal changes, as they—the local people—know best about their surroundings and can provide long-term, systematic data. We coordinate between the villages, which stretch from Tangphrae near the Myitsone dam to the Irrawaddy Delta, and bring them together every three months to share their findings and experiences.

After compiling the information and experiences shared by villagers from several parts of the river bank, our team meets with experts and lawmakers to inform them of known effects of development like pollution, problems with water supply and sanitation, depletion of fishery resources and erosion. We include local representatives in these advanced-level meetings. Once we have identified the problem areas, we then plan to begin more comprehensive, scientific assessments that will last for six months, beginning in December.

Q: How does REAM select villages for research?

A: We communicate with local CSOs, because they have the strongest knowledge about villages that are either affected by development or most in need of development. We make a selection after their guidance, typically based on which villages are most keen to do the research. Ultimately, this research is for their benefit, and we try to encourage those communities that show a real desire to improve. It’s a lot of work, and we don’t provide much material assistance, so it’s really very people-centered development.

Q: Thus far, what have been the findings of REAM’s research in these areas?

A: REAM conducts studies and creates networks for river and mangrove protection, while trying to provide energy solutions to communities that live along major waterways. We also carry out solar power projects and awareness raising efforts. Many villages and private households are finding their own energy solutions, powering their homes and factories with no support from the government. But they go below the radar, without being recognized by the authorities.

Q: Is future support from the government likely for sustainable development projects along the Irrawaddy River? Might the government nationalize these already existing small-scale energy projects?

 A: The government should recognize these efforts and offer them support, both by granting capital and technical assistance. Ultimately, it will depend on policy makers and their willingness to let go of their own businesses, which are linked to foreign investments. Even if they want to, they may not be able to back out of commitments made by the former government. Of course, many of those in power were also part of the former regime, so they are not inclined to change.

We can raise our concerns with the government when we meet with them, but there’s an overall lack of collaboration across ministries, and it’s difficult to change those habits and mindsets.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for small-scale sustainable development in Burma’s rural communities?

A: The biggest challenge is that there is no support from the government. Despite the fact that many officials are aware of the situation, the mechanisms needed to solve problems simply aren’t there. He highest officials need to hear our voices. The government doesn’t want to surrender projects supported by the World Bank or JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency]. A lot of foreign-backed developments come with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects, which they assume means that they are supported by local communities. But in reality, investors are liaising with the government, not the local populations, so they often end up not meeting the needs of communities and not getting the public support they want.

For instance, the Chinese company implementing the Shwe gas and oil pipeline project [China National Petroleum Corporation] was required to create some CSR projects. One of those developments was building a hospital in Mandalay, at the request of the government. But what is the point of that? The Ministry of Health should be doing that. This doesn’t really help that people who actually live where the pipelines are being built, who are feeling the direct impacts of the development. It’s the same situation around the Myitsone dam.

Q: What can the government do to better address the needs of communities affected by development projects?

A: The government must listen to stakeholders’ voices and study global norms. They should also allow and encourage the private sector to implement sustainable development projects. Burma badly needs development of commercial skills, and the renewable energy sector is a great opportunity for that kind of experience. The government should play a management role and let the private sector take over these industries. The problem is that they are afraid to let go.