Thick mangrove forests once lined Burma’s coastline, but in the past 30 years over half of the country’s mangrove forests have been destroyed.
Mangrove trees are an essential part of river ecosystems. They protect the riverbanks from soil erosion by acting as a buffer between the land and sea.
The long roots provide shelter for breeding fish, shrimp and crabs.
Mangroves are also an important natural barrier against floods and storm surges.
Aung Win earns his living by cutting down trees in Irrawaddy Division’s Ni Thaung mangrove forest to sell as firewood.
He used to be a fisherman but, ironically, due to the destruction of the mangroves, fish levels dropped in the estuary.
“In the past we could live by catching fish or frogs. Now, we don’t have enough food in the village so we have to sell firewood to survive,” he said.
More than 80 percent of residents in Rangoon use firewood and charcoal for cooking. Up until 1993 most of the city’s charcoal came from Bokalay mangrove forest. Due to severe deforestation the government banned felling of the mangroves in the area.
Farmer Hla Htay knows mangrove conservation is important, but said local communities rely on the mangroves for firewood and income.
“The main thing to do to preserve these mangrove forests is to find a different energy source. If we get electricity we would all be very happy,” he said.
“Without any alternative energy, how can the villagers live without firewood?”
Maung Maung Than, programme coordinator for the Centre for People and Forests, said efforts to conserve mangroves will be impossible unless the government supplies an alternative energy source.
“The forests are depleting. Poverty is very much related to environment. To conserve the environment, people should have another form of income. If we can use an alternative energy, deforestation would be reduced,” he said.
The biggest threat to the mangroves is from large-scale coastal development, an increase in silt from upstream deforestation, and clearing huge areas for rice-production.
Forty years ago, there were 1.7 million acres of mangrove in Burma; now only 700,000 acres remain.
And the result of mangroves being destroyed has been disastrous. On 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma’s Irrawaddy delta region. 140,000 people died and over 2 million were made homeless.
Experts say if the mangrove forests hadn’t been destroyed, the damage caused by Cyclone Nargis, wouldn’t have been as great.
“If there were dense mangrove forests, the number of deaths would not have been so high,” said Maung Maung Than.
As climate change forces sea levels to rise, coastal communities will be at greater risk from flooding and storms. Wide-scale conservation efforts backed by the government, such as setting up protected mangrove areas and re-planting zones, could turn things around.