The Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development group (EcoDev) is a prominent local NGO campaigning and educating on resource rights and good environmental governance in Myanmar. Its director and co-founder, U Win Myo Thu, spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon on combating deforestation and defending the rights and livelihoods of local communities in this resource-rich country.
When did you start EcoDev and what areas did you focus on at the time?
I started to engage in social welfare activities when I arrived back in Myanmar in 1994. At that time, civil society organizations had a limited role to play and we therefore had to cooperate with concerned UN agencies. We primarily helped locals claim the timber [from forests] which they had conserved from generation to generation, but that the government claimed.
After 2000, we engaged in work on the rule of law. For example, it is public knowledge that cutting down a tree is punishable by three years in jail, although the Forestry Law does not carry that penalty. In some cases, villagers were imprisoned for cutting down a tree inside their own fence. We could help them get acquitted by appealing to the Supreme Court. Gradually, our focus has shifted from social development to the rule of law and environmental justice. We also took a lead role in protests against the Myitsone Dam. The 88 Generation Students group joined our efforts and it therefore became a massive protest movement.
Then again in 2012, we engaged in a program called “Ensuring Clean Air,” focused on handling the fumes emitted by coal-fired power plants. We have been constantly engaged in campaigns against this. At present, we are working with concerned organizations to address environmental issues in urban Yangon. Mainly, we protect the rights of grassroots [communities]. We have labs where air and water quality can be examined and we present the results to concerned government departments and push for action.
From your experience, what environmental issues need to be addressed as a priority?
We view deforestation as the most pressing issue and the biggest threat to the environment. It is the major factor behind environmental deterioration and has many consequences. However, people tend to care more about other, more immediate problems. When we conducted a survey in over 60 townships in Kachin State and Sagaing and Tanintharyi regions, [respondents] mainly talked about water shortages and water pollution. That is very realistic because they use water every day. I had previously thought that only some areas were facing this problem of poor water quality, but then the survey suggested that it was a widespread problem and I was quite worried.
How strong is the public’s awareness of environmental issues at present?
Roughly speaking, they have [good] general knowledge about environmental conservation. They know that deforestation will lead to climate change and water scarcity. But they don’t know about biodiversity because it is a difficult subject. It is fair to say that they have enough awareness to link causes and effects.
To what extent have forests depleted in Myanmar and what are the consequences?
According to the government’s forestry department and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, forest cover is 46 percent [of the country’s land area]. They estimate that one percent of Myanmar’s forested area is lost on average annually. This rate is very high. The government takes both dense and sparse forests into account regarding the rate of deforestation. Recently, in cooperation with a foreign university, we studied the country’s deforestation using satellite images and found that almost one percent of very thick forests in Kachin State and Sagaing and Tanintharyi regions have been lost.
Deforestation of dense forests is particularly worrying. [The government] should issue an honest statement on current deforestation rates and the remaining forest coverage. It is terrifying that the deforestation rate is one percent. It can be argued that it is the highest rate in the world. Although the current percentage of forested area is not bad compared to other countries, we can’t be satisfied with this. If this amount decreased, it would be very difficult for grassroots [communities] to sustain their livelihoods.
People may receive help during times of disaster, but help is always limited. It is the environment that helps people sustain their livelihoods. How can they survive without this? If both social capital and natural resources are depleted, people will not be able to face environmental challenges. It is important that we conserve the environment now. According to a study, there are around 20 million people living within a five-mile radius of forests and around six million people living along rivers [in Myanmar]. These people will suffer if the water and forests they rely on are depleted.
What is the main cause of deforestation: human activities or natural causes?
There are natural causes like forest fires, but mainly it is human activities. Natural causes only account for around one percent of deforestation.
Do civil society organizations like EcoDev lobby the government on combating the illegal timber trade? What recommendations has EcoDev offered on this issue?
After studying illegal logging, there are three main factors behind it: firstly, because of greed; secondly, because of livelihood; and thirdly, because of weak bureaucratic processes… Illegal logging at the border is either directly or indirectly linked with armed groups who do so for their survival. Even if they are arrested, they may not be punished legally because of the peace process. As villagers have said, there are cases in which those who steal a [small] bunch of wood are imprisoned while those who steal logs in trucks act with impunity. The Forestry Department has difficulty in enforcing the forestry law. In some cases, they are even killed. We civil society organizations want the government to adopt national level policies on illegal logging. It needs to develop plans and organize awareness training.
Another problem is awarding licenses for seized logs. It is called License 8. [The government] imposes a fine for smuggled logs seized and then gives the logs back to smugglers officially. So they log illegally before the eyes of the public and allow themselves to get arrested. They can then take logs out of the country legally after paying the fine. [The government] does not usually give out logging licenses. These issues need to be addressed.
So far, only export regulations for the EU market have been discussed… I want the government to draw up plans to eliminate illegal logging. While a certain proportion of logs are exported to the EU market systematically, illegal logging is still rampant in the country. It is important that people are aware. Again, the government is only focusing on exports. We want the government to focus on local use. Poor people have to use wood for their houses as well as for agricultural implements. I would like wood to be available for the poor and for priority to be given to locals. But there may be different views.
This interview originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.