Neglecting Myanmar’s biodiversity means cost and conflict for businesses

Photo People fishing on the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay. Photo: EPA

23 Nov 18 - Source: Myanmar TImes - Myanmar's private sector needs to identify the impact of their businesses on biodiversity and ecosystems early on to avoid cost and conflict, a recent report states.

Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) recently published a briefing paper on biodiversity, human rights and business, advising stakeholders on how some types of investment can negatively affect biodiversity and hence affect human rights.

Commenting on the report, MCRB director Vicky Bowman said that investors should study the potential impacts their project could have on biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as communities who are benefitting from them, at the conceptual stage of the project, when it is first being considered.

"It's at this stage that it's easiest to re-route a road alignment to avoid a sensitive area, redesign the hotel to reduce water use, or change the dam design to reduce inundation. The alternative is to find out later, that changes have to be made or an 'offset' needs to be added, which is more expensive, or the investor ends up in conflict with other stakeholders, which can even lead to the project being suspended," she told The Myanmar Times. 

The briefing paper presents the business case for addressing biodiversity and ecosystem services. It also provides recommendations to companies to address biodiversity conservation in order to be – at a minimum – compliant with Myanmar's environmental regulation, notably the 2018 Biodiversity and Conservation of Protected Areas Law and the 2015 EIA Procedure. 

Myanmar is a party to the Convention on Biodiversity, which the country ratified in 1994. This convention and the commitments in the country's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) 2015-20 require Nay Pyi Taw to ensure that investment does not have a negative impact on biodiversity. But businesses often pay little attention to this area. For example, local firm Kyaw KS and Singapore-based Delta Gold this year sought township approval to extract 5 million tonnes of sand in Tanintharyi with no known environmental assessment, sparking anxiety among experts and environmental specialists who warned that the sand extraction would damage a pearl farm and ruin livelihoods of nearby fishing communities.

A strong business case

During the launch of the report, Ms Bowman emphasised that upfront screening to determine how a project could damage biodiversity is essential, so as to avoid or mitigate negative impacts. It is both a legal requirement in Myanmar as well as a moral obligation.

"Getting this wrong leads to additional cost, project delays and conflict with other stakeholders," she went on. This publication is intended to help companies protect biodiversity and human rights successfully. For example, it shows them where to find information about the country's Protected Areas, and Key Biodiversity Areas.

There is a strong business case for getting this right, the report argued. Businesses whose operations are likely to have the biggest impact on biodiversity are likely to be those that most rely on ecosystem services, such as water and productive soils. Failure to safeguard these ecosystems will hurt the enterprise's bottom line.

"We see this in the tourism industry, for example in the environmental degradation in Inle Lake, and it is a risk in the Tanintharyi archipelago. Not only that - consumers and investors increasingly want businesses to prioritise environmental protection," the director commented.

Furthermore, Ms Bowman said, biodiversity and ecosystems services are needed by others for their livelihoods. A company which damages ecosystems is also probably failing to respect human rights. If firms end up in conflict with local communities who rely on the same ecosystem services, particularly water resources, they may lose their operating permit. The mining sector, in particular, is at risk of this.

Biodiversity and EIAs

The MCRB conducted a biodiversity-focused training for environmental impact assessment (EIA) consultants in March, showing that 68 percent of participants thought that biodiversity was not covered well in the EIAs in the country.

"A thorough EIA is the best way to avoid poor project design and implementation. Consideration of biodiversity should start at the screening and scoping stage. To choose the best project design, the EIA Scoping Study should also look at 'alternatives'.

"This means considering, for example, should this dam, or this hotel even be built in this location or are the negative impacts too great? Or should the number of rooms be reduced, or the project be redesigned to be more environmentally friendly? Should this road be diverted to avoid a sensitive area? Should this mine use alternative processing technology? Unfortunately, there are very few publicly accessible EIAs in Myanmar, and few of those we have seen consider genuine 'alternatives'," she continued.

"MCRB is also told by EIA consultants that their clients tell them to leave out or play down any negative impacts: 43pc of the consultants at a workshop we held last November said that was their biggest challenge. We have also seen EIAs where the 'biodiversity' section bears no relation to the actual project. Instead the company has 'padded' out the report with many pages listing Threatened Species found in Myanmar on the IUCN Red List, and then claims none of these are found in the project location. We have even seen species mentioned in EIAs which don't exist in the wild, like the 'Burmese cat'."

The briefing paper was co-authored by Sally Johnson, an international expert on the biodiversity impacts of business. She said the nexus between biodiversity and human rights is neither well understood nor reflected in public policy. "Myanmar has the opportunity to draw upon the hard-learned lessons of other countries that have opened up to an influx of investment, and can take steps to ensure projects happen in a way that protects biodiversity and respects human rights," the expert observed.

The briefing paper can be downloaded at 

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