Earth Day 2021: Myanmar’s military is a threat to the environment and a driver of climate change

StoryTelling Lead
Apr 19 · 8 min read
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

In Myanmar (Burma), a cruel and sadistic military is violently wrestling power away from citizens, massacring and disappearing protesters and critics with the full power of their arsenal. While their total disregard for the civilians of Myanmar is on full display for the world to see, their chokehold on the country is rooted much deeper than the overt violence we are seeing now, giving the generals immense economic power over various sectors and industries. The military, and the generals in particular, make their wealth from Myanmar’s plentiful natural resources — gems, timber, natural gas, mining and leasing land or building complexes to foreign companies/organizations are the most infamous. General Min Aung Hlaing will allow his supporters to exploit Myanmar’s natural resources for profit without restriction, accelerating climate change and destroying globally important biodiversity areas. Myanmar spans from the Himalayan foothills to the tropical Myeik Archipelago, with the mangroves of the Ayerwaddy delta, dense jungle, massive freshwater lakes and arid grasslands in between. The reversal of 5 years of civilian government efforts to legislate and enforce protections for these unique ecosystems would have a devastating impact on the region and even the world.

Myanmar’s Key Biodiversity Areas

Photo Zinko Hein on Unsplash

1. Wetlands

The Ayerwaddy river is home to several unique species, including the Ayerwaddy dolphin. Indawgyi Lake in Kachin state is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia. Wetlands are critical for migratory birds, as sources of water for local communities, and for infusing soil with nutrients.

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2. Mangrove Forests

Mangrove forests are excellent carbons sinks, and mitigate the impact of tropical storms✎ EditSign. They are unique mudflat ecosystems for a variety of species. Mangroves can be found in Tanintharyi province, and in the Ayerwaddy delta, although many have been cleared.

Photo by Vitaliy Pototski on Unsplash

3. Coral reefs and Sea Grass

Unfortunately, most of the coral reef near Myanmar has already been destroyed from unsustainable fishing practices, coral trade and pollution. However, productive seagrass✎ EditSign beds can be found off the coast of Tanintharyi and Rakhine, supporting many species.

Photo by Kyaw Zay Ya on Unsplash

4. Forested areas

Based on research from 2010, 48% of Myanmar is covered in forest, including the 3 million hectare Northern Forest complex. These forests hold approximately 1654 million metric tonnes of carbon. It is some of the most intact forest in Southeast Asia, and critical for biodiversity.

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5. Unique and Endangered Species Habitat

Many migratory birds✎ EditSign use wetlands habitats. Many birds can also be found in the mangrove forests. Elephants, tigers and sun bears are native to the forests.

Assessing the Impact of the Coup on Myanmar’s Ecosystems

Deforestation

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Due to rampant and unregulated timber extraction by the military, other armed actors, and cronies, Myanmar had the world’s third highest rate of deforestation in 2010. The estimated annual rate of deforestation is 1.72% of Myanmar’s total land area. This means that over 116,000 hectares are cleared each year on average. In 2017, the Forest Department said that there were 39.2 million hectares of forests in 1900, but that dropped to 29 million hectares by 2015. Per WRI’s 2013 data, land use change and deforestation contributed to 51% of the country’s carbon emissions. Timber is regulated by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, now under the control of the military junta. Timber is exported predominantly to India, China and Thailand, countries that have not initiated any sanctions against doing business with the military. Forests are also cleared in Myanmar to create plantations of rubber trees or palm trees, which are seen as more profitable. Although this replaces trees with trees, it destroys the natural habitat, threatens biodiversity and leeches the soil of nutrients. With increasing violence, and the total absence of democratic checks and balances, we can expect a higher rate of logging under the military junta, leading to erosion and excessive silt in rivers causing flooding, release of carbon into the atmosphere, and loss of habitat for unique species.

Natural gas drilling

Myanmar has large deposits of natural gas, and collaborates with energy companies from several countries on extraction. Most of the deposits are found offshore, requiring intensive infrastructure development to access them. This sector is controlled by the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is now under total control of the military. MOGE partners include France’s Total, USA’s Chevron, Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production, Malaysia’s Petronas, Japan’s Nippon Oil, Australia’s Woodside Petroleum, South Korea’s POSCO, China’s CNPC, India’s ONGC and Shell as a partner of Woodside. The Yadana field in the Gulf of Martaban pumps natural gas that is used for domestic consumption and delivered to Thailand, and gas from the Shwe field in the Bay of Bengal is piped to China. A crude oil pipeline runs alongside this, delivering oil from the Middle East into China through Myanmar. All joint ventures with MOGE are now directly funding a brutal dictatorship, and in direct violation of human rights charters. Natural gas drilling comes with environmental risks too. Underwater natural gas well leaks may lead to explosions, degradation of the marine ecosystem and poisoning of fish. Leaks from wells and pipelines release methane into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. With the military generals in charge, corruption and neglect of safety protocols will lead to gaps in monitoring of safety, and leaks could go un-fixed or even unnoticed, exacerbating the impact on our atmosphere.

Mining

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Myanmar is the world’s top supplier of jade, and also has significant deposits of ruby, rare earth, tin and gold, among others. Mining is a massive source of income, with estimates that the jade industry alone accounts for over half of the country’s GDP. The gem trade is controlled by the military through Myanmar Imperial Jade Co. Ltd, Myanmar Ruby Enterprise and Cancri Gems & Jewellery Co. Ltd, private companies owned by military-owned conglomerate Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). The military now also controls the state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise, giving them even great control over the sector. The majority of mined gems and materials are sold to China, so sanctions will have little impact. Even with some civilian government oversight, Myanmar’s mines were sites of exploitative labour conditions and environmental degradation. Unsafe practices have led to landslides, collapses, water and soil pollution and silt build-up causing severe flooding. Just last year, nearly 200 miners perished in a jade mine collapse and subsequent landslide. With full control handed to corrupt generals, there is no mechanism to monitor and control the mining sector, and unsafe and unsustainable practices that allow companies to achieve higher profit rates at the expense of the environment and worker safety are sure to proliferate. Compounding the negative impact of this industry, unfettered growth of open-pit mines will also contribute to deforestation.

Overfishing

As early as 2006, there were estimates that 30% of the species native to Myanmar’s terrestrial seas and exclusive economic zones were overexploited or had collapsed due to fishing. Prior to the coup, the Fisheries Department had been working to curb illegal fishing by strengthening oversight and compliance. Because they are considered globally significant as key biodiversity areas, the waters were protected by law, meaning only fishermen from nearby villages were permitted to catch sustainable numbers of fish. Preventing and penalizing overfishing required a coordinated effort between government and conservationists to crack down on corruption and enforce these laws. With the coup, many of the former government officials have been replaced and entire departments reorganized. The mechanisms are no longer in place, and the system is very susceptible to corruption and cronyism. The junta cannot be relied upon to protect the fragile waters.

Conflict

Photo by sippakorn yamkasikorn on Unsplash

Armed conflict destroys not only human settlements and buildings, but also the surrounding environment. Myanmar’s military has fought continuously with various Ethnic Armed Organizations since they first took power, even after they relinquished partial control to a civilian government. Since the coup on Feb 1, conflict in the north and eastern regions of the country has escalated, including airstrikes carried out by the military on villages in the heart of the Salween Peace Park conservation area. As civilians flee from violence, they move into jungle areas and must rely on natural resources to survive, putting additional strain on these critical ecosystems. As long as the military has impunity, there will be no end to these attacks. In order to defend their territory, EAOs will be forced to increase their revenue streams through sale of natural resources, including timber and mining, compounding the environmental degradation caused by the military’s destructive activities.

Silencing Environment Defenders

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When Myanmar began its gradual transition to democracy a decade ago, human rights defenders were able to more openly speak out against the human and environmental costs of extractive industry projects, while the scientific community developed the training and resources needed to collect data, carry out research and make recommendations to government departments. Universities became places where Myanmar’s scientists could advocate for the environment, and train future generations of conservationists. Exciting projects were emerging in conservation, and major funders were backing the movement. Since the coup, many university staff and faculty have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, making them enemies of the military junta. Some have been arrested while others have gone into hiding. As public institutions, universities are now under control of the military, and international donors will avoid partnering with or funding them. Activities in general have ceased at most campuses, including conservation and environment monitoring efforts. The military junta will silence anyone who does not tow their official line, including human rights defenders, environmentalists or scientists who try to hold them accountable for environmental destruction. As internet use is cut off across the country, scientists are increasingly cut off from international sources of information and support, hampering their own knowledge building efforts. Without this community of advocates and environmental protectors, we can be sure protection mechanisms will be dismantled or ineffective. We will also be in the dark about the extent of the destruction.

Climate change demands the urgent attention of all governments. Myanmar’s holds high ecological value for humankind and this calls for the protection and restoration of its rich natural resources. The international community must fully and immediately support the country in its return to a democratically elected government and provide needed financial and technical assistance for community-based conservation and scientific partnerships.

Photo by Anthony Tuil on Unsplash

GM4MD would like to thank the scientists and experts consulted while researching this article, and express our admiration and respect for Myanmar’s environmental defenders, scientists and conservationists actively opposing the military takeover.

Global Movement For Myanmar Democracy

Thoughts from organizers who support a Burmese democratic government.

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