Burma's Mangrove Forest Under Threat

The slow pace of rebuilding livelihoods in the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta is taking a serious toll on the region's mangrove forests, as growing numbers of people turn to collecting firewood as their job of last resort, environmental groups in Rangoon say.

"More and more local people are cutting down trees in the mangrove forests to make a living," said an official from the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), a Rangoon-based NGO.

"This job doesn't require any investment. All you need is a machete, so those who can't find any other way to earn money do this to make ends meet."

Farming and fishing are the main occupations in the region, but both industries are still reeling from the effects of Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which slammed into Burma in 2008 and turned into the most destructive natural disaster in Burma's history.

A wall of water 12 to 15 feet high, undeterred because many mangrove swamps along the coast already had been torn out for seafood farms, raced 25 miles inland, sowing unimaginable destruction. The Burmese government estimated a toll of about 90,000 dead and 56,000 missing. That figure has since been updated to about 130,000 dead. Nargis also wrecked as much as 65 percent of Burma's rice crop—at least 200,000 hectares of the Irrawaddy Delta were ruined. Hitting just a few days after the harvest was completed, Nargis also wiped out much of the crop in warehouses.

The further destruction of the mangrove forests removes a critical bastion against future storm surges. Nonetheless, the villagers say they have no choice.

"Almost all of us have problems," said one farmer from Laputta Township. "Tens of thousands of rats have destroyed our rice fields. We couldn't even keep seed paddy. As a result, we don't have rice to sell and we can't pay off our debts."

Fishermen say they are also struggling, as catch sizes—of fish, shrimp and crabs—are too small to even feed their own families.

"Since the cyclone, catches are much smaller. The fishery isn't doing so well, so [fishermen] can barely feed themselves," said an official from the Laputta Township Fishery Department.

With their traditional sources of income no longer providing adequate means of survival, many in the delta have had little choice but to seek out other ways to eke out a living. But their choice of alternative employment is putting a severe strain on already vulnerable natural ecosystems—and officials and environmentalists fear it will only get worse.

"The smaller trees can be used for firewood, but they're also cutting down larger hardwood trees that can be used for building houses," said a Forestry Department official. The pace at which some forests have been stripped has alarmed many.

"Coastal areas with thick mangrove forests have become open expanses within days or months," said one environmental activist. "But villagers say they will die of starvation if they can't cut down the trees for sale."

An official from the Forestry Ministry said that efforts should be made to find new jobs for people in the region to prevent any further deterioration of the mangrove forests.

However, environmental analysts say the authorities should also do more to help regrow the forests. They complain that so far efforts have been very limited, with most of the work being done by NGOs.

"The cyclone destroyed the mangrove forest. Then, after the cyclone, people increased their cutting of trees. Very few areas have been replanted—and those mostly by organizations such as FREDA. The government has provided very little support," said a well-known environmental activist who asked to remain anonymous.

According to official statistics, there are about 450,000 hectares of mangrove forest in Burma, of which more than 38,000 hectares in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis.

Reprinted from the Irrawaddy Daily, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement