It’s time to reassess the Burmese export industry, which is destroying a natural defense against killer waves
After the dead are finally counted in Myanmar, the cyclone that hit on May 2nd will go down as one of the deadliest cyclones of all time. Currently seventh on that list is the 1991 cyclone that killed 138,866 people in Bangladesh. Some estimate the Burmese death toll will be around 100,000. The reports are streaming in about how many dead, how many injured, how many missing, how many homeless and, worryingly, the relief organizations’ frustration at the sluggish acceptance of foreign aid by the country’s authoritarian military leaders. But one report is not making the current top headlines and may not merit mainstream news coverage even after the dust in Myanmar has settled. And that’s the fact that if the country’s mangrove forests hadn’t been cleared over the years, many people would have survived this disaster.
Mangrove forests -- which grow along shorelines and up to a few miles inland -- provide a natural barrier against giant waves. After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, it was found that mangrove forests protected coastal communities in several countries in the region. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) looked at the death tolls in two Sri Lankan villages that were hit by the tsunami. They found that only two people died in the village that was protected by dense mangroves, while the other village, with no similar vegetation, lost 6,000.
A few days after the current tragedy, Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said that “encroachment into mangrove forests, which used to serve as a buffer between the rising tide, between big waves and storms and residential areas; all those lands have been destroyed...human beings are now direct victims of such natural forces.”1 Mr. Pitsuwan’s focus on this causative element of the disaster is to be applauded. But regrettably, it’s old news.
In a paper published by the journal Environmental Conservation in 2002, the renowned marine biologist Daniel Alongi, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, wrote that one-third of the world’s mangrove forests had been lost in the last fifty years, suggesting that “the greatest hope for [the mangroves’] future is for a reduction in human population growth.”2 A year later in the same journal, environmental scientist Bradley Walters, from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, reported that in the Philippines, “cutting to make space for fish ponds and residential settlement has dramatically reduced the distribution of mangroves.”3
A recent study done by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 3.6 million hectares of mangrove forests -- which occur all over the world -- have disappeared since 1980.4 This loss has been attributed to various effects of human development upon the natural landscape: tourism, population growth, commercial agriculture, fish farming and logging. Based on satellite images, scientists believe that, between 1975 and 2005, Burma experienced the highest rate of mangrove deforestation among all the countries in tsunami-prone Southeast Asia, followed by Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.5
In 2002, the World Rainforest Movement, an international non-governmental organization advocating the preservation of the Earth’s tropical rainforests, published an article about the loss of Burma’s mangroves. They found that deforestation caused by two of the country’s export industries -- prawns and teak wood -- were “serious impacts on the environment and on the livelihoods of local people.”6 Frozen prawns and shrimp are Canada’s number one import from Myanmar.
Several countries have established trade embargos against Myanmar. In 2003, the United States put into law the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, which bans all Burmese imports. European Union sanctions include restrictions on the import of Burmese timber, metals and gemstones and the prohibition of EU investment in Burmese mining and logging industries. But the success of sanctions from the West is questionable, especially when the Burmese dictators enjoy an unfettered trade with their neighbors that helped the nation to a 2.9 percent growth rate last year. Thailand gobbles up almost 50 percent of Myanmar’s exports, with most of the rest taken by India, China and Japan.
The sanctions from the West must be reconsidered. Eco-minded companies from the Americas and Europe have a much better chance in the immediate future of striking the balance between industry and conservation than their current counterparts in Asia. And while China -- which provides over a third of Myanmar’s imports -- would scoff at the idea of ending bilateral trade, world leaders should press President Hu Jintao to add conservationist provisions to their agreement. Considering the international scrutiny of China’s depressing environmental record during the current Olympic year, this would be a logical, image-burnishing move.
It is likely sobering to many to realize that so many of the deaths from the current disaster could have been prevented by keeping the mangroves alive. But without a regional or even global response, unsustainable industries will remain drivers down a dangerous path. People can neither influence cyclones, nor, in most cases, military juntas. But free people around the world can tell their elected officials to increase pressure on countries like Myanmar to preserve live-saving mangrove forests from deforestation. And people who live in places that do not have import sanctions in place against Myanmar can think twice about eating Burmese shrimp and buying Burmese teak. These may seem like small gestures, but in these increasingly interconnected times, we would do well to ponder again the famous question asked by meteorologist Philip Merilees in 1972: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
6. “Burma: Upstream deforestation and shrimp farming are destroying the mangroves.”
Alongi, Daniel M. “Present state and future of the world's mangrove forests,” Environmental Conservation, Volume 29, Issue 3, September 2002, pp. 331-349 http://www.scopus.com/scopus/record/display.url?eid=2-s2.0-0036762277&view=basic&origin=inward&txGid=oXh0h3ki9Fu-TfVbSug53D4%3a2
“Boycott Imports from Burma,” Canadian Friends of Burma
“Burma: Upstream deforestation and shrimp farming are destroying the mangroves,” World Rainforest Movement Bulletin, Issue 65, December, 2002 http://www.wrm.org.uy/bulletin/65/Burma.html
Hadar, Leon T. “U.S. Sanctions Against Burma: A Failure on All Fronts,” Cato Institute, Trade Policy Analysis, Number 1, March 26, 1998
Kinver, Mark. “Mangrove loss 'put Burma at risk',” BBC News, May 6, 2008 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7385315.stm
Lundholm, Gideon. “The Role of Myanmar's Export Markets in Regime Survival,” Power & Interest News Report, October 18, 2007 http://www.pinr.com/report.php?ac=view_report&report_id=702&language_id=1
Quarterman, Davina. “A Landsat Survey of Mangroves in Tsunami Prone Regions,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, October 30, 2007 http://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/news/news-archive/sci_0018.html
Walters, Bradley B. “People and mangroves in the Philippines: Fifty years of coastal environmental change,” Environmental Conservation, Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2003, pp. 293-303 http://www.scopus.com/scopus/record/display.url?eid=2-s2.0-0141756361&view=basic&origin=inward&txGid=oXh0h3ki9Fu-TfVbSug53D4%3a6
Giri, Chandra, et. al. “Mangrove Forest Distributions and Dynamics (1975-2005) in the Tsunami-impacted Region of Asia,” Journal of Biogeography, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp. 519-528 March 2008