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Twenty-three farmers from Dedaye, Irrawaddy Division have travelled to the capital Naypyidaw, with the hopes of meeting President Thein Sein.
The farmers object to their regional government’s plan to destroy a mangrove forest near Kyondat village, which they have painstakingly replanted.
Extensions to farmland have led to the destruction of hundreds of hectares of mangrove forest in the region. In response, the farmers successfully restored a 700-acre tract of forest, which is again under threat.
Tun Tun Oo of the Irrawaddy Division Human Rights Monitoring Network said the decision by the divisional government to uproot the mangrove forest is out of keeping with the Union government’s conservation agenda.
“The township administration, citing orders from the Irrawaddy Regional Government, has been pressuring us to destroy the mangrove forest we replanted and to stop planting more,” Tun Tun Oo said. “They warned us that they would take action otherwise.”
“But the Union Government has instituted a programme to restore the mangroves in Irrawaddy Division.”
Tun Tun Oo also pointed out that the lack of mangrove coverage makes the community vulnerable to extreme weather events.
“This was one of the worst hit areas during Cyclone Nargis in 2008, due to mangrove deforestation,” he said. “The loss of life and destruction was devastating.”
The delegation of farmers met with three officials on Tuesday, including Sin Sant, former Speaker in the Irrawaddy regional parliament, and Aye Myint, deputy minister for Environmental Conservation and Forestry.
The officials told the environmentalists that it was unlikely that the Union Government would allow them to continue to grow mangroves in the area.
“The deputy Forestry Minister Aye Myint Aung told us that the land is designated as pastureland and technically we aren’t allowed to grow trees there,” Tun Tun Oo said.
“But he said he would help us avoid punishment for growing mangroves on the pastureland, as he is aware the area was hit by a natural disaster.”
According to a 2013 report compiled by the Rangoon-based Mangrove and Environmental Rehabilitation Network and the University of Singapore, mangrove coverage along the Irrawaddy Delta has declined by over 50 percent over the last 30 years, from 2,623 square kilometres to around 1,000 square km.
The report added that deforestation for farming expansion was the main cause and confirmed that the lack of mangrove coverage exacerbated the impact of Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people and made two million homeless.
Close to eight million people currently live on the Irrawaddy delta, with many relying on the natural aquaculture and rich soil for survival. Yet agrarian opportunities for locals are being slashed alongside the mangrove ecosystems, and farmers are increasingly forced into environmentally damaging practices, compounding the problem.
The Dedaye conservationists have been in Naypyidaw for four days and have set up a roadside campaign site. Despite depleting funds for the campaign, they have vowed to wait at their camp until granted a presidential audience.