In late 2017, I visited Myanmar to discuss strategies for conserving valuable forests. Work in this area is essential in Myanmar given the rapid destruction of a unique ecosystem of mountain forests in the Tenasserim Province bordering Thailand. Myanmar has suffered from internal conflict for many years and little attention was paid to nature conservation. The situation has changed since the war ended and the country, which used to be very closed, has started to adopt democratic reforms. Much more attention is now given to nature conservation and there are new opportunities for non-governmental organizations.
WWF opened its office in Myanmar in 2013 and one of its key priorities is to preserve the intact mountain forests of Tenasserim. Russia’s experience in forest conservation and sustainable forest management can serve as a useful guide in this landscape, which is home to many endemic plants, mammals and ecosystems.
Dawna Tenasserim Landscape (DTL): a unique area of intact mountain forests
Myanmar is a country with rich and diverse natural habitats. Forests cover about 60 per cent of its territory. However, they have mainly been preserved in inaccessible mountainous areas and areas with low population density. Forests are logged throughout the Central Plains and the land has been converted into agricultural fields or turned into secondary semi-arid ecosystems.
The Dawna Tenasserim Landscape (DTL) is a unique area of untouched nature in the mountain forests of the Tenasserim Province; it is famous for its unusual landscape and high level of biodiversity. The forests are mostly wild and untouched with two and three levels of high trees entwined with lianas and epiphytes, including crawling palms, rattans and epiphytes.
During a field trip to the forest, I was really impressed by the diversity of species of trees in the first and second levels. In Russia’s northern forests, one can count the number of tree species on the fingers of one hand. In the Tenasserim Province, by contrast, there are dozens of tree species forming the upper level of the forest. These forests are home to 168 species of mammals, including the Asian elephant, Bengali tiger, leopard, tapir, some 568 of birds and thousands of reptiles, amphibians and insects. The forest is also the source of several large rivers, and is vitally important to the local community – the Indigenous Karen people – who still use traditional approaches to natural resources.
The Karen people, who live mainly in South and Southeast Myanmar have traditionally engaged in arable and livestock farming, and also harvest non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Conservation of these forests and free access to their resources are of key importance to the Karen. After the end of the civil war, the Karen started to return to Myanmar and actively use forests for subsistence. Another notable difference between the Russian Northern taiga and these tropical forests is the fact that in Myanmar, people actually live in the forest, building their houses and collecting firewood, building materials and food.
The Tenasserim forests are now on the verge of extinction. This is primarily due to the logging of forests to expand rubber plantations and farm lands, and the construction of infrastructure, such as roads, pipelines and dams. Logging is taking place on such a large scale that the area is known as one of the frontlines in the deforestation of the planet. I witnessed the scale of the challenge myself during our field trip to the forest, where we drove for hours through newly established rubber plantations to reach the forest.
WWF-Myanmar has started to consider what approaches to adopt to conserve these forests. Local environmentalists wanted to know more about lessons learned by WWF-Russia regarding the identification and conservation of valuable forests. In particular, they wanted to learn more about the concept of High Conservation Value Forests (HCVF) and lessons learned in its implementation in Russia.
High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs)
HCVFs are forests with especially high environmental and/or social value. In other words, HCVFs are forests in which the preservation of fauna and flora, support for ecological balance and the needs of local communities are prioritized. Logging in these forests should be limited or in some cases banned completely as this will destroy the value of the forest.
The term forests of high conservation value arose in the course of the development of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme, and the identification and preservation of HCVFs is one of its key principles. When forests are managed sustainably and in an environmentally responsible manner, the conservation of the forest is as important as the profit that can be obtained from logging.
In Russia, WWF initiated development of the national HCVF concept, which is actively implemented by FSC-certified forestry companies. This helps to conserve valuable forests in logged forests. WWF-Russia has built up substantial experience in the identification, mapping and conservation of HCVFs at both the national and regional level, and has developed a specialized tool – available at hcvf.ru – with all necessary materials on HCVFs: documents, maps, examples from various regions of Russia, publications, etc.
Why is Russia’s experience important for Myanmar?
In Russia, the HCVF concept is applied widely as part of FSC certification and is used by stakeholders such as nature conservation organizations and local communities for the conservation of valuable forest areas which could not otherwise be preserved using existing legal tools. Could this concept be successfully applied in countries such as Myanmar where the FSC scheme has not yet been developed?
While there is no FSC scheme in Myanmar, there is a pressing need to conserve valuable forest. It is not only NGOs such as WWF that are seeking such a scheme, but also local communities, since forests are the basis of their livelihoods. However, Karen communities are concerned about the establishment of new protected areas, as has happened in neighboring Thailand, because they are afraid this could force them out of the forest and their homeland.
Landscape management of the areas and identification of HCVFs with management regimes suitable for the need of local people could act as a possible compromise. Talking to participants of the workshop representing local communities, including the Karen, I understood that local people are well aware of the threats to the forests of Tenasserim and do not want to lose them. They are ready to engage in dialogue and identify solutions with other stakeholders to conserve intact Myanmar forests and to preserve their traditional livelihoods at the same time. The lessons learnt in Russia could provide a useful basis to find the balance between protecting forests and protecting communities who rely on them for survival.