Trees, Glorious Trees

By Virginia Hendersonn 25 February 2014

YANGON — What a relief it is to find shelter from a drenching monsoon downpour or the beating midday sun under the protective boughs of one of Yangon’s huge trees. Trees give much to our quality of life, and this city seems especially blessed by its arboreal abundance.

The glorious, sudden and short-lived blooming of the padauk, or Burmese rosewood, adds excitement to a hot April day. There’s something magical about that brief explosion of yellow pendulous racemes, gathered eagerly to adorn women’s hair. It’s a metaphor for beauty in the moment and a splendid choice for a national tree.

The evocative scents of lemon, frangipani and lilac flowers awaken our senses; and after they’ve flowered, fruiting trees produce some of our favorite flavors. The taste of tamarind, lemon, mango and mandarin makes getting vitamins and minerals a delightfully refreshing task. Bananas and papayas are also wholesome and delicious additions to our diets.

Trees can also provide a canopy for food forests, which increase food security and generate incomes in many parts of the world, from India and Indonesia to Africa and Mexico. Created using an ancient technique of planting in layers, with shrubs, herbs, vines, berries and root vegetables growing below fruit and nut trees, these nutrient-dense gardens could be tried in Yangon, Mandalay and other urban areas where space is at a premium.

The wood we use to build our homes and furniture comes from trees, which also provide habitats for countless other species. Trees enhance landscapes and increase the value of our property. They also clean our air, moderate our climate and protect us from the effects of flooding.

Symbols of peace, trees connect the earth and sky, and also remind us of the cycle of life and death. In Africa, trees are planted when a child is born; and in modern natural burials featuring biodegradable coffins, they are put into the ground to grow over gravesites. In many cultures, they are—and deserve to be—venerated as sacred.

Agents of calm, trees can relieve stress and promote learning and healing. They have been on this planet for 370 million years, and some, such as the bristlecone pine, giant sequoia and yew, can live for millennia, through periods of smooth sailing and major upheavals. No wonder, then, that we take such comfort in their presence.

But trees are not immortal. When Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000 people in this country, it also felled a third of the 100-year-old trees in Yangon. And as the city undergoes rapid change, still more are in danger of falling victim to chainsaws.

To accommodate the growing flood of vehicles, streets are being widened, often at the expense of pedestrians’ wellbeing, street vendors’ livelihoods, and the mighty old trees that have seen and done so much. The once elegant and spacious Strand, Merchant and Bo Aung Kyaw roads are now crowded, and the trees that line them are trussed into concrete straitjackets, awaiting execution.

This is not to say that no thought has been given to the trees that grace Yangon’s streets and parks. The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), working together with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, has proposed an urban plan that aims to offset the pressures of development. Among other things, it envisions public transport alternatives that would ease traffic in the city’s downtown core and in the process leave greater room for trees (and people) to breath.

In the meantime, YCDC’s Department of Gardens continues to plant thousands of saplings, including kyun (teak), magyee (tamarind), ngu (laburnum) and pan ei (crepe myrtle). Permission is required to remove trees in YCDC areas and the punishment for damage to trees is up to seven years in prison.

But will this be enough to save Yangon’s natural heritage and green spaces? Unless the city’s denizens start to speak up for their silent friends, they could lose a good deal more than a bit of shade or a place to wait out the rain.

This story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.