Suu Kyi Launches ‘Overwhelming’ Report on Tropics

By Andrew D. Kaspar 30 June 2014

RANGOON — Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday launched an historic and in-depth look at the tropics, making public an unprecedented three-year evaluation of the social, economic and environmental issues at play in the 134 countries that straddle the equator.

The State of the Tropics report offers information on a vast array of factors affecting a region that by 2050 will be home to 67 percent of the global population under 15 years of age, from the tropics’ biodiversity and crime rates to governance and gender equality.

Burma is spotlighted as “among the world’s ‘hottest hotspots’ for species diversity” across some of Asia’s last intact—but increasingly threatened—forests. The tropics as a whole are home to 80 percent of global biodiversity.

The report paints a picture of the tropics as a region improved in most socioeconomic indicators since 1980. Overall poverty is down, agricultural productivity has risen and inhabitants of the tropics increasingly enjoy the benefits of access to mobile phones and the Internet.

But many problems persist and some have become more acute since 1980, according to the report. Fish stocks in the tropics are rapidly being exhausted and rising emissions from industrialization are contributing to a worldwide rise in the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. In many development indicators, tropical countries notably lag nations outside of the belt that spans the latitudinal lines known as the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Though only 40 percent of the world’s population lives in the tropics, the region is home to two-thirds of the world’s extremely impoverished.

The 462-page analysis, which Suu Kyi called “a most impressive and overwhelming report on our part of the world,” was the product of collaboration among 12 universities and research institutions specializing in the tropics.

“I would like to ask a very simple question of those who have put together this report, and all those who make use of this report: How is the information that has been made available to us going to help us to enhance the lives of the peoples of this globe,” Suu Kyi said in her keynote address at the launch event in Rangoon.

Though Burma’s geographic range includes a “dry zone” that sees limited annual rainfall and snow-capped mountains in northern Kachin State, more than 90 percent of the population lives in the tropics.

The report makes note of the unique challenges presented to Burma’s forests in light of major political and economic reforms introduced by President Thein Sein over the last three years. Reforms that have offered opportunities for conservation via international engagement with the country, the report said, but have also hastened deforestation as foreign investment pours into the once closed country.

At particular risk are Burma’s mangrove forests, which are spread across more than 1,200 miles of coastline from the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea, and inland waterways such as the Irrawaddy Delta.

“The mangrove forests of the Ayeryarwady Delta have experienced the highest rate of deforestation in the country with an estimated loss in area of 64% between 1978 and 2011. … At current rates they could be lost entirely in the next two decades,” the report said, adding that the trees were often victims of agricultural conversion encouraged by government policy.

The prospect of mangroves’ extinction has implications for more than just the country’s biodiversity. Mangroves are recognized for the valuable protection they provide to coastal lands and their inhabitants, with some researchers claiming that if the nation’s mangrove forests had been less degraded when Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta region in 2008, fewer casualties and damage would have resulted as the storm made landfall.

“The unprecedented and profound social, political and economic changes that are rapidly taking place in Burma/Myanmar are likely to determine the future of one of the most important and intact forest regions in the Tropics,” the report concluded.

Also analyzed in the report were the challenges presented by tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, both of which continue to burden the health systems of Burma and the wider Southeast Asian region. In 2010, Southeast Asia was second only to the Caribbean in dengue incidence rates, and a 2013 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned of a growing strain of drug resistant malaria in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Burma accounts for about 50 percent of malaria-related deaths in Southeast Asia.

Nonetheless, the Southeast Asian region as a whole was deemed one of the tropics’ success stories, boasting some of the highest growth rates in the world from 1980-2010. Over that period, life expectancy rose by 26 years, and nearly 175 million fewer people were living in poverty by 2010.

With the economic growth, however, have come new challenges, including rising carbon dioxide emissions, higher pollution discharge into rivers and streams, and land conflicts resulting from conversion of forests to farmland.

Suu Kyi, who said that she could add little of substance to the exhaustive report, called for the information contained in the document to be used to inspire “a more caring world.”

“And there is so much that we can learn from this report, to make us better carers,” she said. “To care for our environment, to care for one another, to care for those who are different from us.”

Professor Sandra Harding, vice chancellor and president of James Cook University, one of the institutions that contributed to the report, said the tropics—which are expanding by 138-277 kilometers every 25 years as global temperatures rise—was a region that “features some of the most pressing issues of our time.”

“The aim of the report is to answer a very simple question: Is life in the tropics getting better? More subtly, the aim of the report is geopolitical,” she said in introductory remarks on Sunday. “It is to change the way the world views itself.”