None of the about 50 major hydro projects completed, under construction or on the drawing boards are known to have any environmental impact statements that would meet international standards, according to International Rivers Network and other environmental watchdogs.
The Ministry of Environment Conservation and Forestry was formed only last year and is still without a conservation division. Tizard, who works closely with the ministry, says it has some officials who are dedicated to their work, but he and other environmentalists said their efforts can be easily subverted.
“Under-the-table deals are likely to continue because the military is so entrenched. They or their cronies control most of the businesses, while civil society is still very weak. It needs a lot of education,” says Wong Aung, of the Burma Environmental Working Group, a network of 10 grassroots organizations.
“It’s a double-edged sword. There will be economic development and you are going to have trade-offs with the environment,” says Robert Mather, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Southeast Asia.
There are some grounds for optimism, he said.
Myanmar has a conservation tradition, including sound forestry practices that are lacking in many surrounding countries, and it appears eager to seek outside assistance. A number of international environmental organizations are already planning to set up there, some in partnership with the growing number of local groups. The Wildlife Conservation Society is currently the only major one with a permanent presence.
Mather says Myanmar, as “the last frontier,” could play hard to get — picking only those investors with a history of transparency and environmental sensitivity.
The selection would expand greatly if economic sanctions by Western nations were lifted. The EU announced last month it would suspend most sanctions for a year while it assesses the country’s progress toward democracy, while the US is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“You are going back to Thailand in the 1950s with a conservation practices of the 21st century, so there is a lot of opportunity to do it right,” Tizard says. “If they follow some of the best practices they could do incredibly well.”
Additional reporting by Eileen Ng and Alex Kennedy