Friday, February 14, 2014

Chaungtha beach blues

Beachgoers play in the waves at Chaungtha beach. Photo: Staff
The white sands and alluring waters of Myanmar’s delta coast lie just a few hours’ drive from Yangon, and at first glance the landscape forms a rural idyll, a world away from the traffic-jammed urban centre and its dusty, noisy development sites.

But as city escapees spend their weekends revelling in the natural delights of Chaungtha beach, local residents are battling the impact of habitat destruction, which threatens not just their livelihoods but also the future of the entire region.

Elephants may be a national emblem in Myanmar, but when their nightly raids on rice crops leave families starving and people fearing for their lives, they instead become a symbol of terror and devastation. With natural forests increasingly depleted, farmers near Chaungtha say it is little wonder that the hungry giants have become bolder and more aggressive in foraging cultivated crops.

Resolving the human-elephant conflict is proving a major challenge.
In a paddy field in Saetae Kwin village close to Chaungtha beach, farmer U Hla Myo Naing, a father of five, shows where elephants destroyed his rice crop. Giant footprints indicate just how close the marauding creatures came to his family home.

“They’re getting more aggressive; worse and worse every year. At harvest time and at least once or twice a month we cannot sleep at night because we have to chase the elephants,” says the farmer, who explains he and his family use firecrackers and other noisy objects to chase away the raiding animals.

U Hla Myo Naing reckons he lost about 15 percent of his harvest in 2013 to elephants, while his neighbour lost about 30pc. They’re now relying on donations from other neighbours to help make up the production shortfall but with so many farms in the area falling victim to the hungry elephants it is hard to see how there will be enough to go around.

What’s not hard to see is why the animals are encroaching so much on their human neighbours. Any visitor taking the road from Pathein to Chaungtha will spot the palm plantations expanding in ever-increasing swathes across a landscape that until recently was the site of indigenous forests – the elephants’ natural home and foraging place.

“The elephants don’t have any grazing left, because their habitat has gone. That’s why they approach the people, and it’s the people who’ve gone into the elephant’s territory [to cut down trees],” says U Hla Myo Naing. Asked for possible solutions, he simply responds that he does not know how the problem can be resolved.

Elephant raids following deforestation are not the only threat encroaching on Chaungtha’s beautiful shores. Hotel developments in the area may offer new job opportunities, but just a short walk from the manicured lawns and seafront resort bungalows huge piles of ugly and unsanitary rubbish spill over and around paths and farm borders – not-so-well-hidden evidence that most visitors leave a great deal more than footprints.

Louise Gray, a UK-based environment correspondent on holiday in Myanmar, expresses dismay at what she witnessed at Chaungtha. “It was shocking and worrying to see the amount of rubbish from hotels so close to where farmers and their families are living. It is very concerning that the authorities are allowing a natural beauty area to be degraded in this way and local people’s health potentially put at risk.

“I am also concerned that as the country develops its tourism [industry] – which ... will help provide jobs – the rubbish problem will get worse, and in the long term people will stop coming because of the smell, dirty water and possible social problems dumping rubbish causes.
And it’s not just rubbish that’s spoiling the waters around Chaungtha.

In December local media quoted hotel representatives as saying that the beach’s water is being polluted by dust from charcoal production and its soil eroded by the destruction of nearby mangrove forests.

The sturdy mangrove trees in the delta’s waters have been a long-time source of material for charcoal production but a lack of management and foresight has not only led to dirty water but also robbed the region of a valuable habitat, putting it at risk of massive coastal erosion and disaster.

Environmental studies concluded the colossal destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 could have been mitigated, at least to some extent, had more mangroves remained intact to protect the territory.

While it is evident that many of the environmental problems affecting one of Myanmar’s most popular beaches will take serious and concerted efforts to be addressed, a series of pilot projects now being launched in the region could offer some hope for its forests, residents and animals.
In January the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism announced that Chaungtha beach is among a number of places that will be surveyed as prospective sustainable tourism sites by the Institute for International Development (IID) and the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The ministry also said it has been working with the Ayeyarwady Region government on a plan to provide Chaungtha beach with electricity 24 hours a day.

Meanwhile, those concerned for the environment around Chaungtha are already leading a number of smaller initiatives.

On a small island in a mangrove river close to the beach, Teddy Din, a program director at sustainable business initiative EcoDev and a Cyclone Nargis survivor, shows off an example of a small shrimp farm which he hopes will prove a model for the kind of development that could help both the human population and the vital mangroves in the region.

Not only has the farm been created to produce shrimps in an environmentally friendly manner, but it is also the site of an experiment to grow young mangroves to replace some of those destroyed for charcoal production.

“We hope eventually to incorporate eco-tourism as part of this project too,” Mr Din adds.
Meanwhile, EcoDev is working on an initiative to promote the use of eco-stoves as an alternative to mangrove-threatening charcoal fires. It has also received funding for a community forest project aimed at teaching local communities how to manage the forests without destroying them in the hope that it will lead to the protection of not just trees but also the animals that live among them.

“We can’t stop people chopping down trees entirely,” Mr Din says. “But we can teach them how to do so in a sustainable way.”