Mapping out the goals for biodiversity protection in Myanmar

Globally, IUCN has been working with several countries in revising their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs). These action plans are required from countries who are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the international treaty dedicated to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity recognising its role in sustainable development. Countries have until this year, 2015, to revise or update their NBSAPs according to revised targets agreed in 2010. IUCN has been committed to engaging in this ongoing process.

North Twin island in Myanmar

The following article was taken from the opening was taken from the opening remarks of Mr. Jake Brunner, Deputy Head for IUCN’s Southeast Asia Group, delivered during the national workshop on NBSAPs in Myanmar this month.

Myanmar is in the midst of profound political and economic changes that expose it to both risks and opportunities. Development involves using natural capital to build the homes, factories, schools, roads, airports and other infrastructure and services that support a healthy, well educated and productive workforce. In the tech world, firms often benefit from what's known as a "first mover" advantage because they can set the standards and capture the market share that others have to follow and compete for. But in development, Myanmar has a "late mover" advantage because it has the opportunity to look around the region and identify what policies work and what don't. What lessons can Myanmar learn?

A good place to start is Viet Nam which, during a period of rapid economic growth starting in the early 1990s and ending in 2010, moved millions out of poverty and the country to lower middle income status. This is a major achievement. But the hidden costs of a "growth at all costs" approach to development are now apparent.

What do these hidden costs look like? In the Mekong Delta, the relentless drive to increase rice production led to the construction of large ring dikes to allow three crops of rice a year to be grown. These dikes have dramatically shrunk the floodplain of the Mekong, forcing water downstream where it has flooded urban areas. The dikes have also devastated the capture fisheries on which the 20% of the population that is landless depends on. The delta is now home to more poor people than anywhere else in Viet Nam.

A similar story can be seen with hydropower development in Viet Nam, where the rapid and uncoordinated construction of dams has caused massive social and environmental problems. Many small dams have collapsed. In 2014, an inter-basin water transfer would have cut off the water supply to Da Nang, the country's third largest city. The National Assembly has since intervened to prevent any new dam construction.

The issue isn't dams or no dams, but which dams to build that meet the country's power needs at the lowest social and environmental costs. Or, as a recent paper on hydropower in the Mekong put it: "sustainable development requires that unnecessary risks to ecosystems and environmental services, such as fish production and biodiversity, be avoided." In Myanmar, where water has such profound economic, environmental, and cultural importance, this is a sensible principle to follow.

Myanmar’s revised National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) takes advantage of a wealth of new data and information to set targets that preserve the species and habitats that are truly irreplaceable and influence decisions across multiple sectors that impact biodiversity conservation. This requires the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF) to build strong proactive partnerships with other ministries, businesses, NGOs, universities, media, and other groups to share its huge implementation burden.

A good example is the proposed establishment of an inter-ministerial National Wetlands Committee, chaired by MOECAF, to oversee the management of Myanmar's 100 or so wetlands of national and international importance. Since only 10% of these are legally protected, MOECAF needs to make full use of existing laws, and the growing powers of regional governments, to ensure adequate protection for these wetlands.

One of the main findings from the NBSAP revision was the fact that Myanmar's forests, after 100 years of logging, are commercially exhausted and that the key priority now is how to restore hundreds of thousands of hectares of degraded forest while meeting the large and growing domestic demand for timber. This requires profound changes in how local communities are incentivised to cooperate with government to protect and manage the forest estate. It also requires addressing the role of Myanmar Timber Enterprises (MTE) and moving away from the country's traditional focus on timber extraction for export. With respect to domestic timber supply, the approach must shift to "legalise and regulate." This can be done. Starting in the 1980s, Nepal transformed its forestry sector through strong and consistent support to community-managed timber production, which now meets most of the domestic demand.

While this workshop marks the end of the process of revising the country’s NBSAP, for IUCN it marks the start of a growing program of work in Myanmar. It is likely that the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, a small- and medium-sized grant making mechanism for NGOs and universities that IUCN is implementing in the Indo-Myanmar Hotspot, will be extended for another two years to 2020. In 2014, Myanmar became the 11th country to join Mangroves for the Future, a regional initiative to support sustainable coastal and marine development. Together with Helvetas and Network Activities Group (NAG), IUCN is embarking on a 10-year Swiss-funded project in the Gulf of Mottoma to establish a Ramsar site and support bottom up planning and management, particularly in the highly depleted fisheries sector. Myanmar has also allocated funds to participate in an IUCN-led Global Environment Facility funded global forest restoration project. If approved, it would provide MOECAF resources to tackle the forest sector restructuring that the NBSAP identified as a national priority.

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