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Fish are farmed in an artificial pond in Ayeyawady Region. Flickr

Controversial aquaculture projects threaten Myanmar’s remaining mangroves

Myanmar has lost 80 percent of its original mangrove cover; much of what remains is located in the southern province of Tanintharyi. But in addition to illegal logging of mangroves for charcoal and firewood, aquaculture is a recent development that also threatens mangrove ecosystems.

  • Business tycoons have illegally obtained land permits to develop aquaculture in Tanintharyi without consulting the forestry department for input.
  • Villagers living nearby say the aquaculture facilities impact water quality and their ability to fish.
  • Authorities are looking more closely at the development of aquaculture in Tanintharyi following a visit in March by the prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, who spoke with locals complaining about the impacts of the industry on their daily lives.

TANINTHARYI, Myanmar — Most of the waterways surrounding the islands of the Mergui archipelago in the Andaman Sea are lined with mangroves, and the one leading into the island of Kala from the east was no different. But as our speedboat rounded a corner, we came up against a large barge. Bulldozers roared in the distance. Up on the land, logged mangrove wood was stacked in piles. Some stumps of mangroves were still lodged in the parched soil.

A red sign adjacent to the mangroves said, “no cutting,” but the “no” had fallen off.

A few years ago, a businessman named U San Maung obtained approximately 200 hectares (500 acres) of land in Kala. He bought much of the forest land from nearby villagers and razed the remaining mangrove forest. U San Maung had plans to develop it into an aquaculture facility to produce shrimp to be sold to Thailand, where seafood fetches a higher price than locally.

In January, a manager working in the facility said they hoped to be cultivating shrimp in 10 ponds by April or May of this year.

However, their efforts are controversial: although aquaculture can reduce overfishing in the sea, villagers complain that it also impacts where they are able to fish, and the quality of the catch. The regional parliament is asking the national government to take action against new aquaculture projects in Tanintharyi.

In addition to the illegal harvesting of mangrove wood for charcoal and firewood, and clearing of mangrove forests for rice paddy fields, the development of aquaculture is yet another big driver of mangrove deforestation in Myanmar.

U Zaw Hein, a member of parliament and a native of Kadan, an island neighboring Kala, says that aquaculture poses a bigger treat as large swaths of mangrove forest are cleared at any given time, and are not allowed to regrow.

Since shrimp farming and aquaculture require saltwater — and mangroves grow in regions where saltwater and freshwater meet — opportunities for profit often conflict with ecological resources. Mangroves in other areas of Myanmar such as in the Irrawaddy Delta and western Rakhine state have been cleared for aquaculture, but the development of a shrimp farm in the southern province of Tanintharyi is new.

According to U Zaw Hein and villagers living in Kala, there are only two aquaculture facilities; the first was developed on his island in 2015.

Questionable practices

When U San Maung planned to convert the existing mangrove and mountain forests into a shrimp farm, his business partners approached people in the nearby village of Masan Pa to sell their land. One of the villagers was Ma Aye Po, 35 at the time, to whom they offered about $6,670 for her nearly 3 hectares (7 acres) of rubber plantation.

Ma Aye Po asked for double that, but finally settled for approximately $7,100. Other villagers were also selling their land, she says, and she felt it best to follow suit. In retrospect, she says, it felt like the company bullied her. “It was better to accept his offer, or risk having our land confiscated,” she says.

While most other villagers who had forest land or plantations in the area where the company wanted to build its aquaculture facility, nobody had ownership over the mangroves. That’s because Myanmar’s forestry department governs mangroves.

According to U Zaw Hein, the government never approved the new aquaculture project. Forestry law dictates that the department needs to give a recommendation for these types of projects, U Zaw Hein says. “The recommendation is made only if the project has no impacts on environmental conservation. If anyone followed the law, this type of lawless behavior would not happen,” he says.

Under Myanmar’s vacant and fallow land law, anyone occupying or using “vacant, fallow, or virgin” land has to apply for an official land permit, or else they face eviction or up to two years in jail.

The regional government in Tanintharyi went ahead to approve such permits for companies wanting to develop the aquaculture projects without consulting with the forestry department, says U Myint Maung, the Tanintharyi chief.

Deforestation impacts

Already, this mangrove deforestation for aquaculture development is impacting villagers. A man in Masan Pa, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retaliation from the aquaculture company, makes a living from catching crabs.

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