Conservation in Myanmar: a cause for optimism?

Monga Bay
24 April, 2015

Home to some of the largest remaining contiguous forests in Southeast Asia, as well as more than 1,700 species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, Myanmar is well-known as a biodiversity hotspot. In 2014 alone, 26 new species were found in Myanmar, including the peculiar Glyptothorax igniculus, a catfish that uses an unusual flame-shaped suction cup on its throat to attach itself to rocks.

Fifty years of relative political and economic isolation have yielded slow economic growth and contributed to the conservation of many of Myanmar’s native species. However, the dissolution of Myanmar’s military junta in 2011 marked the beginning of a new age of increasing political and economic liberalization and international engagement. Many experts fear that possible rapid development fuelled by international investment, improved infrastructure and expanded transport networks, pose a grave risk to Myanmar’s biodiversity and forests.

The new Myanmar is struggling to balance development and environment objectives. For example, overseas investments into the Latpadaung copper mine and neighboring Moe Gyo Sulphuric Acid Factory have drawn the ire of international and local critics, who decry environmental and human rights abuses at the sites. There are similar concerns over growing domestic and overseas agribusiness investment. A recent Forest Trends report suggests that large areas of forest have recently been cleared to make way for new private agricultural development, including rubber and oil palm. Notably, many of these areas have been cleared for their timber values, but 75 percent remain unplanted, suggesting that agricultural development is being used as a front for logging. Investment into the Ayeyarwady Delta has raised particular concern. The delta is home to a number of threatened species including the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), and hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), but is also a center of Myanmar’s plan to strengthen agricultural development as part of its economic reform. Recent forecasts warn that all remaining mangroves along the Delta could be lost by 2026.

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