Environmental issues are not just environmental

Environmental issues are not just environmental. Deforestation and climate change can kill like diseases, spreading their roots into issues that are viewed as humanitarian. When trees disappear, so do livelihoods, and poverty ensues- starting a cycle of cutting more trees for money, and a loss of money because of less trees. Developing countries are more prone to this kind of infection, as they often convert forests into unsustainable commercial farms or cut down trees for timber. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land examines this man-made epidemic on a global scale looking at regions from South America to South Asia. The country of Myanmar (in South Asia), is plagued with deforestation. Decades ago, lush forests covered over half of the country’s land, now, 6.3% of heavily forested land is under Myanmar’s government protection. In 2015, Myanmar had the third-highest annual rate of forest reduction, just behind Brazil and Indonesia, according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment, and from 2010 to 2015, the amount of deforested land (over 1.3 million acres) equated the area of Equatorial Guinea. Despite the rapid destruction of these forests, mangrove trees are exceptional benefits to the environment. Because the mangroves of Ayeyarwady, Myanmar are undervalued as the diverse homes of flora and fauna and key players in the fight to lessen climate change, devastating effects are occurring and will continue to happen without turnaround.
First, it is important to recognize the history of Myanmar to understand the complications of its environmental history. The Ayeyarwady Region of Myanmar is centered around the Ayeyarwady (otherwise known as the Irrawaddy) River; in fact, most of Myanmar’s earliest settlements were too. The river provided the optimal conditions for rice growing in the 6th century and still do today. With so much food, the early kingdoms flourished and grew. Later, in the 13th Century, the Shans and Mongols conquered Myanmar’s armies and unified the delta area. Three hundred years later, European traders set up companies at coastal towns, setting the foundation for the British to gain control of the entire country in 1886. In taking over Myanmar’s land, the British took over the Ayeyarwady river, a direct route to China. Even in Colonial times, logging was a prominent industry, leading to heavy deforestation. After World War II, Myanmar broke free from the British crown and wrote a new constitution. Though not oppressed by an outside force, from 1962 to 2014, Myanmar was under an aggressive military regime. Tragedy struck in early May of 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit the coast of Myanmar. This category-four cyclone tore through thousands of villages, rice paddies, and lives. In times of need and poverty, governments tend to ignore the environmental needs of their country and let deforestation continue unregulated and rampant.
Trees do much more than breathe out oxygen. The coastal mangroves of the Ayeyarwady Delta minimized the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis acting as a buffer, cushioning the blow. But trees help people at times beyond natural disasters. José Graziano da Silva, the director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said, “Forests play a fundamental role in combating rural poverty, ensuring food security and providing people with livelihoods. And they deliver vital environmental services such as clean air and water, the conservation of biodiversity and combating climate change,” And yet, forests are not adequately appreciated for what they bring to communities. U Tin Aye, an active member of the Myanmar Forest Association said, “Conserving forest coverage is the answer to sustaining the natural environment of the country, … I would like to suggest conserving forests be made a national priority.”
While any tree is beneficial to almost any environment, the mangrove tree provides specific aid to Myanmar. These trees grow in water, their tangly roots perfect for juvenile fish to live in. Mangroves have been credited to support 30% of the greater Southeastern Asian fish catch, and nearly 100% of its shrimp harvest. Mangroves are exemplary at absorbing CO2. They can sequester five times the CO2 of a terrestrial rainforest tree, and could minimize the effects of climate change like they did to Myanmar’s coast. These trees also adapt well to a variety of salinity levels, and have acted as beneficiaries to coastal communities. Mangroves provide water security, which is important for growing rice, a common occupation around the Delta area by buffering floods and preventing droughts. While these trees make for happier and healthier people, they are being cut down three times faster than rainforests for agricultural conversion and timber.
The lack of knowledge around the importance of mangroves in Myanmar plays a principal role in the deforestation rates. The majority of deforested land is converted into either a small scale rice paddy or commercial sugar plantations endorsed by Myanmar’s government in response to the rising interest from foreign sugar investors. Some of the mangroves however, have been cut down by people in the poorest corners of Myanmar’s society, with a need to make some sort of livelihood to support themselves and their families.
Along with the loss of mangroves goes the loss of biodiversity in the Delta. Over thirty species are currently considered endangered. Their primary threat? The loss of their homes. Ayeyarwady dolphin, estuarine crocodile, mangrove terrapin, sarus crane, and spoon billed sandpiper are just some of the native fauna. In addition, more than eight hundred orchid species are endemic and endangered from the loss of their habitat too. Because the Delta is where the Ayeyarwady river meets the sea, the species in the area (both plant and animal) have adapted to their conditions be it by diet or soil type. Ecosystems like the Delta protect resources and provide stability to an area by weaving different species together, each with different assets to offer, and build harmonious communities that help humans, though people are the first to destroy them. As the circle of life is all connected, taking out one species means taking out so many more: take out mangroves and thirty more species of flora and fauna are lost.
Luckily, there are still some people who have noticed the loss of these exceptional trees and are doing something about it. In response to hearing about the endangered orchids, King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway offered to collect seeds in a seed vault in 2014. Starting in 2015, they partnered with the Worldview International Foundation (WIF), a leading player in today’s restoration efforts. An orchid laboratory in Yangon has grown 500,000 + orchids of those species. Most of them are rehabilitated into the wild in protected areas, and some are sold to orchid lovers to keep the project funded.
While they have already planted three million mangrove trees, WIF is planning on expanding to mangrove planting drones. These would plant trees up to ten times faster and reduce costs by half. One tree costs $20.00 and, if healthy absorbs roughly one ton of CO2. With financial support, Myanmar has 500,000 Ha available land for restoration with capacity to mitigate over 500 million tons CO2. While the replanted mangrove survival rate is at 50% in general, WIF’s model for planting these mangroves is at 86%. WIF’s success is not only with the trees, after five years since WIF comes to plant trees and aid local coastal communities, there is a recorded 100% income increase in the poorest sectors. WIF has also worked with Pathein University, Myeik University, and Yangon University since 2012 to test soil and research how to best restore the mangroves in the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park, a 1,800 acre climate park established by WIF and the universities. Through 2015 to 2016, they had planted and rescued 2.5 million mangroves, established a gene bank, and nursed another million trees for later planting. They also started projects to focus on the elevation of treatment towards women in fifty villages, centered around sustainable development.
Such exemplary trees shouldn’t be taken for granted as they are today: the cost is simply too high. The loss of mangroves is contagious- it spirals into the loss of biodiversity, water security, and soil erosion. While it’s reassuring to have organizations like WIF restore what has been lost, without knowledge of these trees’ importance, the problem will not be stopped at its roots. Deforestation’s impact has reached far past mere short term harm, and caused so much conflict for both the lives within and beyond the mangroves. However, these trees need to be recognized as a national priority to change the direction history has pushed Myanmar into. It’s not too late to turn around.