In Myanmar, mangroves have disappeared at an unprecedented clip. The rate of deforestation in the country is the highest in Southeast Asia, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016. This is big news, both locally and worldwide, because mangroves are a crucial component of the fight against global warming.

Scientists say it is extremely important to try to preserve mangrove forests or let degraded areas regrow, because a hectare of mangrove forest can buffer a lot more carbon than an equivalent area of tropical forest. Mangroves have a big impact on climate, because while they’re only found in tropical areas and cover around 140,000 square kilometers – less than 3% the extent of the Amazon rainforest – they are rated as powerhouses when it comes to carbon storage. Studies indicate that mangroves can store four times as much carbon as rainforests can, mostly in the soil beneath mangrove trees.

Htay Lin, secretary of the Mangrove Service Network, an environmental organization based in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, estimates that only 20% of the mangroves in the Irrawaddy Delta remain. Most have been cleared for aquaculture or rice paddy fields. Those that survive are in forest and wildlife reserves near the city of Bogale.

To save the remaining mangroves, the Myanmar government issued a logging ban in 2014. Despite that, illegal logging persists, as people in many areas still rely heavily on nearby forests for their livelihoods.

Aside from illegal logging of mangroves for charcoal and firewood, aquaculture is a recent development that threatens mangrove ecosystems. It is the second major threat to mangrove forests in Myanmar.

Two villagers who illegally harvest mangroves get out of a boat in Tanintharyi province. Photo: Victoria Milko / Mongabay

Tanintharyi mangrove forests

Much of what remains of the country’s mangrove cover is in Tanintharyi. A visit to this region revealed that business tycoons have illegally obtained land permits to develop aquaculture in the southern province without consulting the Forestry Department for input.

Villagers living nearby say aquaculture facilities have an impact on water quality and their ability to fish.

But there is some positive news – authorities are paying closer attention to these developments, because State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited the area in March and spoke to local people badly affected by these projects.

Most of the waterways surrounding the islands of the Mergui archipelago in the Andaman Sea are lined with mangroves, and the one leading into the island of Kala from the east was no different. But as our speedboat rounded a corner, we came up against a large barge. Bulldozers roared in the distance. Up on the land, logged mangrove wood was stacked in piles. Some stumps of mangroves were still lodged in the parched soil. A red sign adjacent to the mangroves said, “no cutting,” but the “no” had fallen off.

A few years ago, a businessman named San Maung obtained about 200 hectares of land in Kala. He bought much of the forest land from nearby villagers and razed the remaining mangrove forest. San Maung had plans to develop it into an aquaculture facility to produce shrimp to be sold to Thailand, where seafood fetches a higher price than locally.

In January, a manager working in the facility said it hoped to be cultivating shrimp in 10 ponds by April or May of this year.

However, such efforts are controversial: Although aquaculture can reduce overfishing in the sea, villagers complain that it also impacts where they are able to fish, and the quality of the catch. The regional parliament is asking the national government to take action against new aquaculture projects in Tanintharyi.

In addition to the illegal harvesting of mangrove wood for charcoal and firewood, and clearing of mangrove forests for rice paddy fields, the development of aquaculture is yet another big driver of mangrove deforestation in Myanmar.

Zaw Hein, a member of parliament and a native of Kadan, an island neighboring Kala, says aquaculture poses a bigger threat as large swaths of mangrove forest are cleared at any given time, and are not allowed to grow back.

A crab that can be caught and sold near the Myeik area in Myanmar. Photo by Victoria Milko.
A crab that can be caught and sold near the Myeik area in Myanmar. Photo: Victoria Milko.

Since shrimp farming and aquaculture require salt water – and mangroves grow in regions where salt water and fresh water meet – opportunities for profit often conflict with ecological resources. Mangroves in other areas of Myanmar such as in the Irrawaddy Delta and western Rakhine state have been cleared for aquaculture, but the development of a shrimp farm in the southern province of Tanintharyi is new.

According to Zaw Hein and villagers living in Kala, there are only two aquaculture facilities; the first was developed on his island in 2015.

Questionable practices

When San Maung planned to convert the existing mangrove and mountain forests into a shrimp farm, his business partners approached people in the nearby village of Masan Pa to sell their land. One of the villagers was Aye Po, 35 at the time, to whom they offered about US$6,670 for her nearly 3 hectares of rubber plantation.

Aye Po asked for double that, but finally settled for about $7,100. Other villagers were also selling their land, she says, and she felt it best to follow suit. In retrospect, she says, it felt like the company bullied her. “It was better to accept his offer, or risk having our land confiscated,” she said.

While most other villagers who had forest land or plantations in the area where the company wanted to build its aquaculture facility, nobody had ownership over the mangroves. That’s because Myanmar’s forestry department governs mangroves.

According to Zaw Hein, the government never approved the new aquaculture project. Forestry law dictates that the department needs to give a recommendation for these types of projects, Zaw Hein said. “The recommendation is made only if the project has no impacts on environmental conservation. If anyone followed the law, this type of lawless behavior would not happen,” he said.

Under Myanmar’s vacant and fallow land law, anyone occupying or using “vacant, fallow, or virgin” land has to apply for an official land permit, or else they face eviction or up to two years in jail.

The regional government in Tanintharyi went ahead to approve such permits for companies wanting to develop the aquaculture projects without consulting with the Forestry Department, says Myint Maung, the Tanintharyi chief.

Mangrove forests are thriving because of climate change. Photo: iStock
Large areas of mangrove forest have been lost in Southeast Asia because of illegal logging for firewood and aquaculture. File photo: iStock

Deforestation impacts

Already, this mangrove deforestation for aquaculture development is impacting villagers. A man in Masan Pa, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation from the aquaculture company, makes a living from catching crabs.

He used to go into the mangrove area now under development for his daily catch, but says the company will no longer allow him in. (The company in question could not be reached for comment.) “We want to complain about this hardship because we have no place for crab fishing,” he said. “But we don’t have anyone to lead or organize us for the complaint.”

In the nearby village of Kyunsu, an aquaculture development project led by a local tycoon named Hla Than involved the clearance of 170 hectares (420 acres) of land, some of which used to be mangrove forest. Hla Than obtained the land nearly 15 years ago under the previous military regime in Myanmar.

He says he sees aquaculture as a necessity and a means to reduce overfishing from the sea, but adds that he did not formally seek approval from the national government, which would only have approved the project if the Forestry Department also gave it the green light. “But it would take time, because it’s a complicated procedure,” Hla Than said.

Myint Maung says he believes there is potential for more aquaculture projects to be developed in Tanintharyi, which would put the remaining mangroves at further risk. “We are thinking to impose some restrictions,” he said. “For example, a business or company will have to maintain or preserve at least 30% of the mangrove in their project area, or replant at least 30% of the project area on another available vacant and fallow piece of land.”

Scientific concerns

Christoph Zöckler, a coastal biodiversity specialist with the Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung for Nature Conservation and Environmental Protection in Germany, says this is the wrong way to approach these projects. Because Tanintharyi is home to the majority of Myanmar’s remaining mangroves, Zöckler says, regional governments and officials should try to keep it that way. “We want to keep them for the sake of local people, for diversity. We don’t want to jeopardize that with any kind of half-hearted deals with developers,” he said.

Zöckler and his collaborators in Myanmar, including Fauna & Flora International, are looking to create a biosphere reserve that would cover more than 300,000 hectares of land in Tanintharyi and would encompass mangroves and mudflats in many of the islands. “Aquaculture has no place in that,” he said.

Jean Yong, a plant biochemist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says the biodiversity of mangroves in Tanintharyi is “too precious to be sacrificed” for land-based aquaculture. Perhaps one way to sustainably develop aquaculture in Tanintharyi, he says, is for businesses to develop offshore aquaculture systems that do not require the loss of mangrove forests.

In mid-March, after State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Tanintharyi and spoke with locals, the aquaculture projects in Tanintharyi came under greater scrutiny. During her visit, Suu Kyi spoke with locals, who complained about the impacts of aquaculture on their daily lives.

So members of national and regional parliaments are working to stop current government projects or take action against existing aquaculture businesses.

This story first appeared on Mongabay. The original report can be accessed here.