By VIOLET CHO
The Irrawaddy News
A prominent Burmese environmental group has found a silver lining in the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3: a growing awareness among both government officials and ordinary citizens about the need to pay greater attention to the environment.
“It was a blessing from the sky,” said U Ohn, general secretary of the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA). “It was terrible that many people died in the storm, but this cyclone also provided an effective warning to the stakeholders to open their eyes to the environment.”
The Rangoon-based FREDA, one of the few local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to conserving Burma’s forests, has been active in establishing mangrove nurseries and installing mangrove plantations in abandoned paddy lands in the Irrawaddy delta, which bore the brunt of Nargis’ fury.
U Ohn said that both officials and ordinary Burmese had long taken the environment for granted, but after Cyclone Nargis, they now know that they ignore nature’s delicate balance at their own peril.
“This is the direct impact of the failure to protect the environment, so if we are not initiating efforts to preserve our forests now, we will definitely face this kind of catastrophe again,” he added.
Burma contains some 34 million hectares of natural forest—the second-largest area in Southeast Asia after Indonesia—but deforestation in the Irrawaddy delta region has been catastrophic, with more than 20 percent of mangrove forests having been lost between 1990 and 2000, according to research done by the Washington-based non-profit organization Conservation International.
Cyclone Nargis also destroyed many self-sustaining mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy delta, in addition to the thousands of trees—some of them nearly a century old—felled by the storm in the former capital, Rangoon.
According to an official from the Department of Garden and Playground Parks under the Rangoon City Development Committee, around 531 of the more than 10,000 trees destroyed by the cyclone were more than 50 years old.
The Rangoon-based weekly, 7-Day News, reported on Thursday that Burma’s military government was planning to use the roots and branches of cyclone-downed trees collected in the Rangoon municipal area to make sculptures to be auctioned to local and foreign entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, the local journal Bi-Weekly Eleven reported government plans to plant more than 30,000 shade-providing trees in cyclone-affected areas.