Grim outlook for Asia’s final frontier of biodiversity


NEW YORK — Since brutally assuming direct power in 1988, the Myanmar military has been conducting a sustained assault on the environment in one of Asia’s richest and least-developed lands. The country’s ecosystem, which ranges from tropical reefs along the Bay of Bengal to the mountains of the Himalayas, is home to numerous endangered flora and fauna, making Myanmar one of the richest depositories of natural resources worldwide. Called “the last frontier of biodiversity in Asia,” Myanmar has 300 known mammal species, 370 reptile species, 1,000 bird species and 7,000 plant species. All are now imperiled by mining, logging, and pipeline and dam projects carried out by the military.

Although the human rights abuses of the Myanmar military are well known, the harm done to the country’s environment is frequently overlooked because the military keeps a tight rein on all information, prohibiting public discussion of environmental issues and punishing those who try to question its development policies.

The very existence of the regime rests upon the exploitation of natural resources. The generals have allowed massive logging — particularly of teak — and the construction of gas pipelines and other development projects that have caused serious environmental damage. Highly prized teak forests, which provided livelihoods for many ethnic minorities, are being destroyed by Thai loggers at a very fast rate, causing erosion, floods and landslides and threatening the survival of endangered animal species. From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, Myanmar had the lowest deforestation rate in Southeast Asia. But today timber is the country’s leading export, and the rate of deforestation has more than doubled since 1988.

Fishing represents another depletion of a renewable resource for quick commercial benefit. Uncontrolled fishing by Thai companies, to whom the junta gave concessions, has led to the impoverishment of people in fishing villages.

The exploitation of natural gas and minerals and the implementation of large dam projects continues with little concern for the effect on the environment or on the populations in the areas being exploited. The most significant cause of environmental destruction is presently the Yadana natural gas pipeline that goes to Thailand. In Myanmar the pipeline cuts through rich ecosystems, disrupting the natural habitat of rare animals. In Thailand, the pipeline goes through an important rain forest, compromising the survival of endangered wild Asian elephants.

The negative effects of mining go beyond a particular mining site, since pollutants generated in the process can be spread through the waterways hundreds of kilometers from the source of contamination. This situation is worsened by Myanmar’s poor mining regulations and the lack of enforcement of existing ones.

Large dam projects can also have serious consequences on the environment. The prospective Tasang Dam project has generated much attention among environmentalists because of its potential, like the Yadana pipeline, to cause harm. If constructed, this would be the first dam on the Salween River, the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, and could lead to the irreversible loss of rich aquatic biodiversity.

What can be done to alleviate the Myanmar military’s attacks on the environment? An important step would be to provide international assistance to local groups such as Karenni Evergreen, an indigenous grass-roots organization created in 1996 to increase environmental awareness among the Karenni people. At the same time, an agreement should be sought between the government and environmentally conscious organizations on a set of priority actions to be implemented, such as detailed environmental assessments taking into consideration the views of the affected communities.

The key to Myanmar’s environmental problems, however, rests on Myanmar’s military. As stated by Yuki Akimoto, an attorney with EarthRights International, “Until those who are exploiting Burma’s environment begin to prioritize ecological protection and respect for human rights, the future of the country’s natural and human resources will be grim.”