Why Myanmar villagers still engage in illegal logging of mangroves

Photo Illegal mangrove harvester with his haul in the Irrawaddy Delta. Photo by Victoria Milko. Photo by Victoria Milko.

​30 April 19 - Source: Mongabay

  • The Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar used to be rich in mangroves, but only 20 percent of the original coverage remains today.
  • Although it's illegal to log mangrove wood, people who live in villages without electricity still cut the increasingly fragmented mangrove forests of the delta for fuelwood for cooking.
  • Logging isn't just physically dangerous; it's also legally risky.
  • Fuel-efficient stoves, access to alternative fuels, and opportunities for employment could help reduce the amount of illegal logging of mangroves. 

IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar — Just as dawn was breaking on a balmy morning this past January, U Khin Win left his home with a pair of black rubber boots and a sickle. He met his friend, U Tin Hla, who was filling up the tank of their small, rickety motorboat on the riverbank. U Khin Win and U Tin Hla live in Chaungbyaegyi, a coastal village in the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. The delta is known for its agricultural productivity — electric-green rice paddy fields flank the narrow roads — and the muddy waterways serve not only as conduits for locals to travel from one village to another, but also as a place where people fish and bathe. Some villages, like Chaungbyaegyi, are a few hodfsaurs away from major cities, which makes job opportunities and electricity scarce. And in a village with no electricity to cook, residents use firewood that they procure from the nearest forest, located about a half-hour boat ride away. For U Khin Win and U Tin Hla, that happens to be a mangrove forest. About three or four times a week, the two of them would set out early in the morning, harvest what they can, load it in a boat, and prepare to do it all again the next day. 

Illegal mangrove harvesters with their boat in the Irrawaddy Delta. Photo by Victoria Milko.

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. U Htay Lin, secretary of the Mangrove Service Network, an environmental organization based in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, estimates that only 20 percent 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 — just a three hour boat ride from Chaungbyaegyi.

To save the remaining mangroves, the Myanmar government issued a logging ban in 2014. Despite that, illegal logging persists. One sentiment that I heard repeatedly from villagers who live outside the towns in the delta is that they need mangrove wood to survive. To understand how most people in the Irrawaddy live, and why illegal logging of mangroves persists, I decided to follow U Khin Win and U Tin Hla into the mangrove forest.

Into the forest

Expertly navigating the waterways of a nearby forest reserve on Byone Mhwe Island, U Khin Win and U Tin Hla decided on a spot to log before they pulled the boat up to the muddy banks, where crabs no more than an inch or two long emerged from holes in the mud and fish larvae hopped around. The two loggers jammed on their boots and ran up the strong and exposed roots of a mangrove tree onto the land. They weren't the only ones logging that day; I saw countless wooden boats like theirs pulled up to the riverbanks and a trail of muddy footsteps leading deeper still into the mangrove forest.

The forest is an unruly place.

Almost immediately, U Tin Hla wielded his sickle and started hacking away at branches to clear a walking path. Colonies of red ants climbed onto bushes and leaped onto us. (Later, the loggers gave up at a separate location because they were covered from head to toe in fire ants.) Plants with spiky, sinister, geometrically shaped leaves were omnipresent, and mosquitos flew amok. My feet sank into the quicksand-like mud with every step. And not only did I constantly have to extricate my feet every step of the way, I also had to be careful of where I stepped: stake-like mangrove shoots protruded from the earth and juvenile crabs shuffled through the mud.

Freelance environmental journalist Wudan Yan reporting in Myanmar for Mongabay. Photo by Victoria Milko.

U Tin Hla, however, appeared completely used to the travails of the forest.

Along the path he carved, he stumbled across a mangrove tree and immediately hacked off a branch about two arms lengths. Wood chips flew from the point of impact. A few meters further into the forest, the pair found a thin, tall palm tree known locally as thinbaung, which makes for excellent firewood that people prefer to use at the brick kilns. U Tin Hla made an indentation at the base with the sickle and started chopping away. Because they hoped to sell the thinbaung directly to the brick kilns in another town of the Irrawaddy Delta called Wakema, they had to strip away the excess bark.

A risky pursuit

A few months prior to my visit, U Khin Win and U Tin Hla were arrested and fined for illegal logging. A local official was patrolling the region saw U Khin Win's boat. Scared of getting caught and possibly jailed, U Khin Win abandoned his boat.

I was surprised that the two loggers would let us come along in the wake of their arrest. Local authorities know that because villagers are so reliant on mangrove wood as fuel, it wouldn't be realistic to completely ban them from illegally harvesting mangroves. So now, U Khin Win is back at it. Ko Zin Myo, the village administrator of Chaungbyaegyi, who arranged our visit, was also hopeful that our reporting on why villagers continue to log illegally could bring in alternative jobs or options for fuel.

Freelance environmental journalist Wudan Yan reporting in Myanmar for Mongabay. Photo by Victoria Milko.

In addition to the legal repercussions, the villagers who illegally log in the mangrove forests also face other dangers. The day before I met U Khin Win and U Tin Hla, I was in Sat Sen, a village slightly northeast of Chaungbyaegyi, where signs warn villagers: "Crocodiles, don't swim." One man told me a story of how a woman he frequently went logging with was eaten alive by a crocodile last July. Since that incident, he's been too scared to return, which has impacted his ability to earn an income.

Some regions of the Irrawaddy Delta where illegal logging of mangroves persists are difficult to access. While there are now stoves and alternative fuel sources that can reduce the need for wood from the disappearing mangrove forests, these innovations haven't yet made it to villages like Sat Sen and Chaungbyaegyi, where people still rely heavily on the nearby forests for their livelihoods.

As I walked through the main streets of these villages, I saw bundles of mangrove wood being sold for around 3 U.S. cents each. Each bundle can burn for about 15 to 20 minutes — enough time for a family to cook a meal.

The farther we were from villages that were close to the remaining mangrove forests, the less frequently we saw bundles of mangrove wood being sold. In the township of Labutta, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) west of Sat Sen and where I started my reporting, I hardly saw anyone cooking with mangrove firewood; instead, the fuel of choice was charcoal. There are nearly no mangrove forests left near Labutta, so the shops in town buy charcoal from elsewhere in Myanmar. The closer the villages were to the source, it seemed, the more likely it was that they would use mangrove wood in its raw form for their cooking.

When I first learned about how multifaceted mangroves, I was surprised to see that news outlets didn't pay much attention to this ecosystem at all. If an acre of mangrove forest can buffer four times more carbon than an equivalent land area of tropical forest, wouldn't it make sense to do our best to conserve the remaining mangroves — and better yet, let degraded areas regrow?

Freelance environmental journalist Wudan Yan reporting in Myanmar for Mongabay. Photo by Victoria Milko.

As a mangrove enthusiast and environmental journalist, watching U Tin Hla and U Khin Win hack their way almost mindlessly through the forest was dispiriting. At the same time, I found myself deeply empathetic to their desperation and their fundamental human rights for survival that they would resort to doing something illegal.

In Myanmar, the mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy Delta are being increasingly fragmented and degraded, but what remains still stands strong. Villagers, NGOs and researchers whom I met during this and past trips know that if the mangroves are left alone, degraded mangrove ecosystems can regain all their natural functions in 25 years or so. From my reporting, I was heartened to know that if the right measures were taken — if villagers who live a mostly subsistence lifestyle could be given fuel-efficient stoves, alternative types of fuel, and different ways to make a living — that the mangroves of Myanmar could possibly be saved.

With additional reporting by Victoria Milko.

Banner image: Illegal mangrove harvester with his haul in the Irrawaddy Delta. Photo by Victoria Milko. Photo by Victoria Milko.

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