As many as 40,000 gorgeously plumed birds known as the Gurney’s pitta thrive in the lowland rainforests of economically backward Myanmar. Across the border, Thailand’s last five pairs are guarded around the clock against snakes and human predators.
The bird’s status is among many reasons Myanmar is regarded as one of Asia’s last bastions of biodiversity and why environmentalists view the country’s steps toward opening its doors with some fear.
Myanmar has avoided the rapid, often rampant development seen in Thailand and other parts of Asia because of decades of isolation brought on by harsh military rule. However, as foreign investors begin pouring in, activists in Myanmar say endemic corruption, virtually nonexistent environmental laws and a long-repressed civil society make it “ripe for environmental rape.”
They hope that it will at least prove a race: Pro-democracy reformers and conservationists are urging the government to put more safeguards in place against the unscrupulous eager to take advantage of their absence.
The rush is already on. Airplanes bound for Yangon, the nation’s largest city, are booked up with businesspeople looking for deals, along with throngs of tourists. Singapore dispatched a delegation with 74 company representatives in March, while the Malaysians sent a high-level investment mission focused on property development, tourism, rubber and oil palm plantations. US and European countries are not as involved because sanctions against Myanmar prevent them from starting new businesses there.
“The ‘development invasion’ will speed up environmental destruction and is also likely to lead to more human rights abuses,” Pianporn Deetes of the US-based International Rivers Network said. “Industries will move very fast, while civil society is just beginning to learn about the impacts.”
Under Burmese President Thein Sein, the government last year began to loosen the military’s grip on power, instituting some reforms and even allowing democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run, and win, a seat in parliament. Reasons for the changes remain murky, but years as an international pariah have left Myanmar poor and in need of foreign investment.
Environmentally, Myanmar is certainly no longer pristine, but it has been spared some of the wholesale ravages seen in the economically booming, more open societies across Asia.
Positioned at the core of one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, it is endowed with plant and animal life of the flanking Himalayas, Malay Peninsula, Indian subcontinent and mainland Southeast Asia.
Only three countries in the world have more extensive tropical forests: Brazil, India and the Congo. Myanmar is home to 1,099 of Southeast Asia’s 1,324 bird species and to extensive coral reefs. Unexploited rivers, on- and offshore oil deposits and minerals abound.
“The scale is just massive. It just dwarfs everything else in surrounding countries,” says Robert Tizard, who heads the office of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society in Myanmar. “It could be a curse that they have so many resources.”
Environmentalists say Myanmar’s government, which remains dominated by the military, has an abysmal record of protecting its resources, which are often exploited by enterprises linked to generals and their cronies.
One such enterprise, the Yuzana Co, operates in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which the government established with considerable fanfare as the world’s largest tiger reserve in 2001. Yuzana has razed forests in the area to plant sugar cane, and gold mining is rife.