Myanmar’s mangrove forests are in grave peril

12 Juni 2020

Mangrove forests are under threat across Southeast Asia and in the country of Myanmar alone more than 60% of them were lost within just two decades between 1996 and 2016, according to researchers at the National University of Singapore.

“Mangroves are one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems, and Myanmar is regarded as the current mangrove deforestation hotspot globally,” the scientists write in a study published in Environmental Research Letters. “Net national mangrove cover declined by 52% over 20 years, with annual net loss rates of 3.60%–3.87%. Gross mangrove deforestation was more profound: 63% of the 1996 mangrove extent had been temporarily or permanently converted by 2016.”

Most of the country’s mangroves have been converted into rice paddies, oil palm and rubber tree plantations, as well as areas used for aquaculture. The profound loss of deforestation in the country’s mangrove forests, which are critical for biodiversity, is the reason why Myanmar has been described as a primary hotspot of mangrove loss in the world. “It is quite incredible to consider that nearly two-thirds of all mangroves in Myanmar were deforested over a 20-year-period,” says Edward Webb, one of the authors of the study.

Mangrove trees grow in various depths of water in coastal areas and they are crucial for coastal marine ecosystems. Their dense entangled roots stabilize coastlines and provide homes to a variety of marine species, including fish and crustaceans. Mangroves can also absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, as a result of which these forests play an important role in the fight against climate change.

Mangroves growing in South Asia, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region account for nearly half, or 46%, of the world’s entire mangrove forests. Southeast Asia is home to the world’s highest rate of mangrove biodiversity. Many of the region’s mangroves, however, have been lost owing to agricultural activities.

“Loss of mangroves equates to loss of habitat available for mangrove-dependent wildlife, and this may include birds, mammals, fish and crustaceans, as well as crocodiles,” Webb says. “Perhaps, as important are the implications for other ecosystem services associated with mangroves, including shoreline protection and carbon sequestration.”

The rapid deforestation of mangroves in Myanmar has also been detailed in another study, led by Daniel Richards and Daniel Friess, two researchers at the National University of Singapore who investigated the rate of mangrove deforestation in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, between 2000 and 2012.

The scientists reported that rice farming was a main driver of mangrove loss. The government of Myanmar has sought to increase food security, which has resulted in boosts to rice farming production. Yet that has come at a cost to mangroves that have been converted into paddies. “Almost 25,000 hectares of Myanmar’s mangroves were converted to rice paddy between 2000 and 2012,” Richards noted.

A similar situation has prevailed elsewhere in Southeast Asia. “Sixteen percent of all deforested mangroves in Southeast Asia were replaced with oil palm plantations during our study period,” the scientist said. “We usually think of oil palm as an issue which affects tropical forests on land but our study shows that demand for oil palm is also driving deforestation in coastal mangrove forests.”

The rate of deforestation is of especial concern in Myanmar because the country’s government does not consider mangroves to be important parts of the ecosystem that need to be preserved. “As a result of the lack of environmental safeguards and continuing economic transformation in Myanmar, we may expect mangrove conversion to rice and other agriculture to continue to displace large areas of mangrove in this country in the future,” the authors warn in their study.

The loss of nearly two-thirds of Myanmar’s mangroves in just a few short years has raised the specter of an environmental calamity in the making. Yet the remaining forests can still be saved.

“The fate of mangroves in the country will be tied to the strength of policies and implementation of conservation measures,” Webb says. “Through proper long-term planning, management and conservation, this resilient ecosystem can recover and be maintained for the future.”

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