KANPETLET, MYANMAR – Kazumi Fujikawa is scouring a nature-rich mountain range in Myanmar. Her mission, to find, identify and classify its flora, is central to the nation’s future economy and environment.
The 45-year-old Kochi woman’s plant taxonomy work in Natma Taung National Park is part of the process of creating an illustrated reference book of plants and flowers in Myanmar.
The country, whose natural environment is now threatened by economic development triggered by a shift from global isolation under military rule to democracy, has no such compendium of its flora as yet.
Creating a reference book is a critical step toward both preserving Myanmar’s nature and fostering its prosperity, according to Fujikawa, as a lack of knowledge about crops, for example, could hamper agricultural development.
“We will be able to identify useful varieties of plant and consider how to use them only if we have an illustrated reference book. It will allow us to recognize endangered varieties and map out a preservation strategy,” Fujikawa said.
“Such a reference book will be the basis of everything, including economic development and nature preservation.”
As she collects samples, Fujikawa teaches national park personnel like Law Shine, a forest management administrator, and Ling Shein Mane, a park ranger, who accompany her on expeditions.
“By getting to know about their varieties, I’m starting to understand plants and nature,” Law Shine said.
At the heart of the park is Natma Taung, or Mount Victoria, as it is known in the West. At over 3,000 meters above sea level, it towers over the surrounding plateau, which is covered in broad-leaf forests.
As well as being a national park, this region, located in Chin state in west-central Myanmar, has also been designated as an important nature preserve and Heritage Park by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In the botanical survey in Myanmar, Fujikawa is working with experts from Thailand, China, the United States and Britain. Fujikawa herself is a researcher from Kochi Prefectural Makino Botanical Garden in Japan’s Kochi Prefecture.
In the survey, which started in 2002, Fujikawa and her colleagues have so far identified around 2,500 varieties of plants and collected some 18,000 samples.
The process of identifying plants and flowers existing in Natma Taung National Park is scheduled to be completed this December, and the illustrated reference book is expected to be published by March 2017.
But even as Myanmar tries to catch up with more prosperous ASEAN countries, the tide of economic development is threatening its natural environment. Even Natma Taung — the name means a “mountain protected by God” in a local language — is not invulnerable.
Shein Gay Ngai, a former head of the national park, said: “We have been protecting the forest and water according to the traditional rules, but they are now being destroyed.”
Despite opposition from the national park administrators, a motorway was built across what is ecologically the most important part of the park, for the convenience of local residents. And a forest area proposed as a buffer zone around a key part of the nature preserve is falling victim to the wave of development, with a hotel for foreign tourists under construction.
While doing her work as a botanical expert, Fujikawa is also involved in an initiative to promote preservation by raising local living standards.
The Natma Taung region is inhabited by the Chin people, who make a living through primitive agricultural activities such as slash-and-burn farming, which increasingly threatens the region’s fertility.
Previously, each area of land was burned once every two decades or so, but the frequency has increased as the local population has grown. “Eventually, rainwater will wash away surface soil, making this a barren mountain,” Fujikawa warned.
Shein Gay Ngai said it is important to help local residents transition from slash-and-burn farming to other ways of supporting themselves.
Growing medicinal orchids was proposed, but the idea was abandoned because the time needed to harvest was too long. Next, cultivating konjac potatoes was tried, and this project took off. Konjac potatoes grown in the region have been exported to China and Japan, and some farmers have found success to the extent that they have built large houses dubbed “konjac palaces.”
Sometimes farmers choose the wrong variety of konjac, however, and wind up with crops that have little commercial value.
The continuing presence of such cases of ignorance is exactly why Fujikawa is dedicated to the planned reference book of flora. She sees it as a vital seed for future prosperity.