The Irrawaddy

Landscaping Projects in Bagan May Ruin Chances of World Heritage Site Status

A section of Japanese lawn grass at Dhammayangyi Pagoda in Bagan.

MANDALAY — A lack of transparency in landscaping projects currently underway in Bagan, the archaeological zone in central Myanmar, has raised concerns over the safeguarding of the ancient pagodas and temples.

For the landscaping projects, local authorities are planning to plant a Japanese lawn grass, zoysia japonica, at about 17 prominent pagodas and temples, including Dhammayangyi, Sulamani and Mahabodhi pagodas and Tharabha Gate.

“We were told that the project is under the supervision of the Nyaung U district administration office. They said they are doing this for the landscape of Bagan, however, they should think about the long-term impact,” said Ko Myo Set San, a leader of the local environmental activist group Save Bagan.

Locals have cited a lack of transparency in these projects, which is raising concern over the impact they may have on the ancient temples and pagodas, especially since the ground inspection by an official UNESCO expert team is scheduled for mid-September, during which they will assess Bagan’s suitability to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

They added that there was a series of meetings between local members of the public, local CSOs, government officials and the Department of Archaeology and National Museum for the Bagan region; however, the authorities failed to explain anything about the planting projects.

“We made several complaints to the district administration office as well as the department of archaeology, but they have failed to explain this to us or issue any reply,” said Ko Myo Set San.

Locals have said that since Bagan is located in a dry zone, the grass will need an irrigation system and that moisture from this will affect the strength of the centuries-old pagodas and temples.

“We suspect that the administration office is doing these projects just to ruin Bagan’s chances of being listed as a World Heritage Site,” he said. “If they did really care about Bagan, they wouldn’t do these projects because they could affect the conservation of the ancient pagodas.”

The project at Tharabha Gate is already complete. The ongoing project at Dhammayangyi Pagoda is halfway finished while other temples are still at the tilling stage.

Photos have been spread on social media, drawing criticism in recent days.

“Japanese lawn grass is not a native plant of Bagan. The authorities should have known about this and now they need to review the project. What will the UNESCO expert team say when they see this?” questioned U Thein Oo, an elder from Bagan, who is involved in a local environment and conservation activist group.

“If Bagan’s nomination to UNESCO fails due to these projects, the authorities must take full responsibility for this,” he added.

The Nyaung U district administration office and the Department of Archaeology and National Museum have been out of reach for comment.

When The Irrawaddy previously requested comment on the landscaping project at Tharabha Gate, U Aung Aung Kyaw, director the Bagan sub-office of the Department of Archaeology and National Museum said experts’ recommendations had been sought on the landscaping project and that they were making efforts to safeguard the ancient monuments.

On the other hand, the national project officer at UNESCO’s Myanmar office told The Irrawaddy that the office wants to suggest that local authorities not disturb the original atmosphere.

“It is hard to comment on what they are doing, as we do not know the exact plan for these landscaping projects. We understand that the authorities want to do good things for Bagan, however, they need to protect the natural scenery that gives an ancient atmosphere for visitors,” said Daw Ohnmar Myo, the national project officer at UNESCO’s Myanmar office.

Since some of the natural drainage systems in Bagan have been ruined by development projects in the past, the UNESCO office said the local authorities also need to improve the drainage system in order to safeguard the foundations of the structures.

“Every time it rains, the water can’t recede easily in many areas in Bagan and this will affect the foundations of the pagodas in the long term. If there is planting near the pagodas and temples, the drainage needs to be improved first, for it will need water,” she explained.

“Moreover, it is also important to know what kind of plants they will grow there. The plants should be native plants that are suited to the weather of the area and they also need to make sure the projects will not affect the natural scenery of the region.”