Comment: Environment ignored as Myanmar struggles with coup

The military takeover in Myanmar has put a halt to many environmental programmes that were starting to produce results
<p>A man slashes vegetation beside the road from Pathein to Mawdin Sun in Myanmar in 2012. Myanmar exported more than USD 190 million worth of timber last year, according to environmental group Forest Trends (Image: Eitan Simanor / Alamy)</p>

A man slashes vegetation beside the road from Pathein to Mawdin Sun in Myanmar in 2012. Myanmar exported more than USD 190 million worth of timber last year, according to environmental group Forest Trends (Image: Eitan Simanor / Alamy)

When Myanmar’s military staged a coup more than a year ago and seized power from a democratically elected civilian government, not only did it undo a decade of opening up the country that brought a degree of freedom and prosperity to ordinary citizens, it also condemned the country’s rich biodiversity and ecosystems. 

The coup was, and still is, a tragedy for both humans and nature in the Southeast Asian nation.

Myanmar is a country with a long history of state-sanctioned over-exploitation of natural resources – from minerals and precious stones to forests and oil and gas – which enriched the top generals beyond imagination, but also resulted in a polluted and degraded environment, human rights abuses and decades-long conflicts. 

The country has always been vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters due to its long coastline, which runs nearly 2,000 kilometres on its western side. The majority of the population live in low-lying areas with high levels of poverty. 

Already, parts of the country are suffering from erratic weather and warming temperatures because of climate change. The average daily temperature in Myanmar increased by about 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade between 1981 and 2010, according to a 2017 report jointly published by the civilian government, the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

By mid-century, every region will see temperatures rise between 1.3C and 2.7C above historical levels, as well as an increase in the number of extremely hot days with temperatures above 38-39C. 

Another climate impact assessment report released by the Red Cross in April 2021 points out the rising number of tropical cyclones hitting Myanmar. More storms are now hitting the country’s shores just before the monsoon. Mangrove forests, which shield coastal communities from storm surges and erosion, have been cleared for shrimp farms and paddy fields.  

The Red Cross’s report also warned that the Ayeyarwady Delta, known as the country’s rice bowl, will likely be affected by rising sea levels. Other major crop areas in the country’s central region will experience “more heatwaves, droughts, flash floods and landslides”, says the report. 

Even before the coup, farmers were feeling the brunt of climate change. Almost all farmers who responded to a 2020 survey conducted by the United Nations experienced changes in weather patterns, leading to lower or even no crop yields. 

The increased floods and droughts in Southeast Asia will have an adverse impact on food availability and prices, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This means local populations, including those in Myanmar, will likely need to deal with hunger and malnourishment.

Due to a combination of political factors, especially the insecurity caused by clashes between Myanmar’s military and local resistance forces, the impact on the environment and climate change can be worse on the ground.

Some international organisations, donors and civil society groups have suspended much-needed climate adaptation and mitigation work since the beginning of Myanmar’s coup – for a number of reasons, including safety concerns and their reluctance to collaborate with the military. 

This has forced many local environmental groups to halt their work due to funding cuts

On the other hand, the junta government has been paranoid about the presence of foreign organisations on their soil, creating a hostile atmosphere that has halted cross-border collaboration on environmental protection and climate change. 

An article published last month by Roxa Luxemburg Stiftung, a foundation closely linked to Die Linke, the German Left Party, detailed the struggles of local and international environmental groups since the coup. 

“All our work has stopped. The local communities couldn’t hold any public events either,” two environmentalists told me while I was researching a paper looking at how Myanmar is emerging as a test case of the nexus between climate change, migration and political instability. 

“Now the regime is naming pretty much everyone as PDF (People’s Defence Forces, which are fighting the junta). If you enter a community, nobody will trust you. Even if they do, someone could report your presence to the police or soldiers and then you’d be arrested. It’s too risky,” said one environmental activist.  

Civil society groups and organizations that used to push the government to become fairer and greener have been muzzled. Some of them are on the run. They are targeted by the military who want to silence the voices of concern about the junta’s environmental destructive activities and controversial infrastructure projects, often involving corruption.

In the Nexus25 paper on security and climate migration, I and my co-author Michael Werz highlight that “the coup will exacerbate many other indicators that influence the intersecting challenges of climate change, human migration, and instability, particularly in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic”.

“There are also valid concerns the military junta may expand natural resources exploitation, further degrading ecosystems and worsening climate change,” we wrote in the report.  

The environmental group Forest Trends reported in March that the junta had increasingly turned to natural resources to support its regime, while Myanmar’s economy had collapsed since the coup. 

This exploitation of natural resources provides a financial source for both military operations and violence against civilians, much like the previous military regime did for decades. “The elected government had brought in anti-corruption reforms, but these are being undone,” said the environmental group. 

Forest Trends also issued a report showing Myanmar had exported more than USD 190 million worth of timber last year. Much of it went to China, India and Thailand, countries that appear to turn a blind eye to the regime’s atrocities against its own people. 

More than 20% of the timber landed in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union despite their governments’ sanctions on Myanmar’s mining and forestry products. Italy was the destination for 11% of the exports. 

Mining activities were also intensified after the coup on 1 February last year. Illegal rare earth mining surged five-fold in Myanmar’s far north between February and late April last year, reported the Irrawaddy, an English news outlet focusing on Myanmar affairs.

Rare earth metals are an essential mineral in high-tech devices and green technologies, including smartphones and rechargeable batteries for electric and hybrid cars. China has a high demand for rare earth metals to drive its technology sector.

Myanmar exported USD 1.1 billion worth of rare earth metals to China between 2017 and 2021, profiting militia groups allied with the military regime, but causing water shortages and poisoning farmland, reported Kachinwaves, a local news outlet based in Kachin state. 

The coup has clearly brought all environmental and climate activities to a standstill. It is heartbreaking after all the progress that was made with the public becoming more aware of climate and environmental issues. 

There were campaigns to clean up trash, lessen plastic use, tackle pollution and recycle in big cities like Yangon. Activists were also making headway in rural areas by helping communities become more resilient to hotter summers and wetter monsoons. 

Much of this is now on hold. The junta’s activities that harm the environment are exacerbating, and generations of Myanmar people will bear the brunt.

This article was first published by Mekong Eye