Sprouting Mangroves Restore Hopes in Coastal Myanmar

Young planters stand guard by mangrove forest in Shwe Thaung Yan sub township in Ayyerwady region of Myanmar. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
SHWE THAUNG YAN, Myanmar, Jan 4 2019 (IPS)

Htay Aung is having a moment. The 63-year-old retired professor of Marine Science sits at the foot of a Buddha statue atop a hill on Shwe Thaung Yan sub township, in Myanmar’s Ayyerwady region, almost in meditation. Below him, a vast thicket of mangrove glistens in the gold of a setting sun. For Aung, this stretch of mangroves—known as the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park—is a symbol of joy, hope and all things good.

“We gave three years of hard work in planting these trees. Now they are growing tall. Soon, they will be the biggest assets of our people,” he says, pointing at the forest and the tiny dot of houses that appear in the horizon.

The restored mangrove forest in Shwe Thaung Yan sub township in Ayyerwady region of Myanmar. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Mangroves in Myanmar
This mangrove forest is spread across an area of 2,557 square kilometres (km)—almost the size of Luxembourg.

However, in most places, the density is wafer thin thanks to rampant clearing of the mangroves for space to breed shrimps and for firewood etc. According to a recent study by Pierre Taillerdat, Massimo Lupascu and Daniel Friess, Myanmar loses about 21 square km of its mangrove forest each year.

Shwe Thaung Yan, about 185 km north west of Yangon, once had a severely degraded forest where 75 percent of its mangroves had been destroyed.

Then the story changed.

In 2015, just before the rains came, a motley crowd of a few hundred men, women and youths from the fishing villages, wearing shinny plastic gumboots and carrying sling sacks filled with mangrove saplings, gathered along the muddy swamp in Myagi—one of the three villages under Shwe Thaung Yan.

For several hours a day, they planted the saplings in the muddy soil made fertile and nutrient rich by regular tides.
By October of that year, they had planted over 700,000 trees on three square km of land.

Since then, the plantation drive has taken place each year. By the end of October 2018, the community planted six million trees in three villages of under Shew Thaung Yan, covering 9 square km of land—an area over four times bigger than the city of Monaco.

Leading the planters from the front, besides Aung were Uboni and Aung Aung Myint, experts in mangrove research and costal ecosystems restoration. The three are currently associated with Worldview International Foundation (WIF)—a Norwegian charity co-founded by Arne Fjortoft, a former journalist turned politician and a renowned environmentalist.

“We used the satellite images, studied the images meticulously and created a map that shows the exact patches in the mangrove forest that had gone bare. We shared this information with the villagers. We also marked the areas and divided the planters in several groups and assigned each group a certain area,” Uboni tells IPS.

Before the plantation started, WIF entered into an active partnership with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and two of the country’s leading educational institutions, Myeik and Pathein universities. The land area for planting mangroves—over 7 square km in all—was provided by Pathein University, which is also involved in studying marine science along the coast of Shwe Thaung Yan.

Worldview International Foundation (WIF) signboard by a mangrove forest in Shwe Thaung Yan sub township in Ayyerwady region of Myanmar. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Mitigating Climate Change
Mangroves make up only 0.7 percent of the world’s forests, but they have the potential to store about 2.5 times as much CO2 as humans produce globally each year. A 2017 study estimated that the total amount of carbon held in the world’s mangroves was around 4.2 billion tonnes. If this whole amount were released as CO2, it would be equivalent to the annual emissions of China and the United States put together.

Another study said that Myanmar’s mangroves — which is 3 percent of global mangrove forests, shows “huge (blue carbon) potential if conservation can prevent further emissions from their loss and encourage future carbon sequestration through restoration.” So, blue carbon mitigation at the national scale “is well aligned with the Paris Agreement and associated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for some nations,” the study says.

Cameron Keith Richards, professor at Southern Cross University, Australia, visited Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park in 2016 to evaluate the mangrove restoration and its blue carbon stock. In his validation report, which helped the project qualify for selling its carbon stocks, Richards summarised the project saying that it was “reasonably assumed to represent an overall 4.3 million tons of C02 within a 20-year lifecycle of the current trees and additional trees to be planted in the project.”

The mangrove project has opened ways for alternative livelihoods and skill-building opportunities for the community. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Community Development
Shew Thaung Yan is primarily a fishing sub township where catching and selling of fish remain the source of sustenance for its nearly 11,000-strong community.

However, the mangrove project has opened ways for alternative livelihoods and skill-building opportunities for the community: during the monsoon when there is little or no fishing in the sea, the community members earn wages by planting mangrove saplings in the forests around them.

Women of the village have also started a clam farming collective–a first for the community. The collective which presently has 55 members, is running from a site that was earlier used as a nursery for growing mangrove saplings. The women visit the mangrove forest where they collect clams and bring it back to the farm where each of them have a 6 to 10 ft enclosure that are regularly flooded by the tidal waves. The clams have been “sowed’ into the slushy farm soil, where they will thrive and grow fat, feeding on the nutrients brought by the tides.

This is a zero-investment livelihood initiative that promises local women a good earning opportunity, explains Shwe Sandar Oo, the coordinator of the farming project. “The land is free, the clams are free and we have already connected them to buyers,” she tells IPS. The buyers, she says, are hoteliers in Chaung Tha, a beach town popular among domestic and foreign tourists. Big, fleshy clams are high in demand among the tourists and usually fetch half a dollar each.

Clam farmer Thein Thein Sein is full of happiness as she looks upon her zero-investment clam farm in Myagi village of Shwe Thaung Yan sub township in Ayyerwady region of Myanmar. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Thein Thein Nwe, one of the clam farmers says that it’s the zero-investment that drew her to the collective. Earlier this year, Nwe’s eldest daughter dropped out of school at grade 10, after she failed to pass her grade 10 tests. With the income she earns from her clam farm, the 42-year-old fisherwoman now hopes to send her daughter to a private coach, so she could retake the tests.

Many in the village of Maygi have received clean cookstoves and solar lamps provided by WIF. The village has a media centre where school-going children of the village are learning various skills including basic computer operations, photography and embroidery. Run by WIF, the centre offers scholarship girl students who are promising but too poor to afford tuition fees.

Way to the Future
As 2019 begins, the planters in Shwe Thaung Yan are gearing up to plant two billion trees–their biggest plantation drive to date. Once finished, restoration drive of Shwe Thaung Yan would be complete and the restored forest would store 300 million tonnes of CO2, Uboni says. “After this, we are going to Yangon Division and also the delta division. So, in the new year, we will go to Bago and Mon state to plant mangrove,” he announces.

Aung, on the other hand, is more focused on the underwater marine life, especially conserving the seagrass and the coral bed both of which are available in the sea around Shwe Thaung Yan.

“The seagrass can stock much more blue carbon than the land trees or mangrove. It is also what feeds Dugong or sea cow—a critically endangered sea mammal. So, with the help of WIF and Pathein University, we now aim is to build a marine sanctuary around Shwe Thaung Yan,” he says.

The idea has received the approval of Daw Si Si Hla Bu, the rector of Pathein University. “I want to see our university making significant contribution to coastal ecosystem restoration,” Hla Bu tells IPS.

Arne Fjortoft tells IPS that the funding for the proposed marine sanctuary could be raised from selling off the carbon stock of mangrove forests. For Fjortoft, however, the mangrove restoration, vocational trainings, clam farming and marine life conservation are all part of a big, single picture: “The final goal here is to help bring sustainable development for 12 million people of the country’s coastal communities. And that’s the future we are hoping to see.”

Solar Energy Crowns Social Housing Programme in Brazil

A view of houses with solar panels on their rooftops in the Maria Pires Perillo housing complex, two kilometres from the city of Palmeiras de Goiás. With 740 homes, it is the largest solar energy project in social housing complexes in the state of Goiás, in central Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

A view of houses with solar panels on their rooftops in the Maria Pires Perillo housing complex, two kilometres from the city of Palmeiras de Goiás. With 740 homes, it is the largest solar energy project in social housing complexes in the state of Goiás, in central Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
PALMEIRAS DE GOIÁS, Brazil, Jan 4 2019 (IPS)

“Solar energy makes my happiness complete,” said Divina Cardoso dos Santos, owner of one of 740 houses with photovoltaic panels on the rooftops in a settlement on the outskirts of this central Brazilian city.

“The first blessing was thishouse,” said the 67-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 14. “I paid 600 reais (155 dollars) a month for rent in the city of Palmeiras, and now I pay monthly quotas of just 25 reais (6.50 dollars) for this house, which is mine,” she told IPS.

Her retirement pension, which for the past two years has assured her an income equivalent to the minimum wage (250 dollars) a month, and visits from a daughter who lives in Switzerland are “other blessings,” which preceded the solar panels, which allow her to save almost the entire cost of the electricity bill – about 15 dollars a month.

The Maria PiresPerillo Residential complex, a group of 740 homes that began to house poor families in 2016, is a social housing project of the Housing Agency (AGEHAB) of the state of Goiás, in west-central Brazil.

Located two kilometres from Palmeiras de Goiás, a city of 28,000 people, it is the largest of the four residential complexes that AGEHAB will supply with solar energy. The agency is a pioneer in Brazil in includingsolar power in housing programmes.

“We would like to build all the new housing complexes with solar panels and also install them in the ones built previously,” Cleomar Dutra, president of AGEHAB, told IPS.

The agency subsidises the installation, granting 3,000 reais (780 dollars) to each family, through the”ChequeMaisMoradia”programme for the improvement of homes. The money covers the cost of two solar panels and the necessary equipment, such as inverters, cables and supports.

But this year’s devaluation of the Brazilian currency, the real, drove up the cost of the panels and other equipment, which is almost all imported. Additional resources for the facilities in the Palmeiras complex, which are yet to be completed, had to be sought, said Dutra.

Divina Cardoso dos Santos stands in front of her house in a social housing complex, for which she pays a monthly fee of about 6.5 dollars, on the outskirts of the Brazilian city of Palmeiras de Goiás. That's 24 times less than the rent she used to pay. On the neighbouring rooftop can be seen a solar water heater, which all of the homes in the neighbourhood have. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Divina Cardoso dos Santos stands in front of her house in a social housing complex, for which she pays a monthly fee of about 6.5 dollars, on the outskirts of the Brazilian city of Palmeiras de Goiás. That’s 24 times less than the rent she used to pay. On the neighbouring rooftop can be seen a solar water heater, which all of the homes in the neighbourhood have. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

“Not all of the houses will have solar panels, because some did not sign the financing contract for the ‘Cheque Mais Moradia’,” said Pedro de Oliveira Neto, the 32-year-old technician who runs the facilities at the Maria Perillo Residential Complex, installed by Nexsolar.

Oliveira has been doing this work for the past four months, after taking a specialised course. Before that, he worked in the meat industry and in mining. Now he wants to stay in the field of solar energy, “which has a future, it’s innovation,” he told IPS.

Actually, most of the houses in the complex have solar panels, but few of them generate their own energy. After they are installed, other conditions must be met in order for the local power company, Enel from Italy, to connect each home’s system to the grid.

The process began in March 2017 when solar units were installed in three homes as a test.

Patricia Soares de Oliveira, 31, married with an eight-year-old daughter, was included in that first installation. Her electricity bill fell to one-fifth of the previous one. Now she pays about four dollars a month.

“We have two TV sets, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a computer and fans,” she told IPS to explain how much electricity they use.

“Now we want to reduce the water bill, which costs us 10 to 12 times more than electricity,” she complained.

Her family also no longer has to pay rent because they were granted a home in the complex. Whereas they used to pay 350 reais (90 dollars) a month they now pay just 25 reais (6.50 dollars) per month, the fee for the small portion of the financing that the owners have to pay.

The low cost of the home is due to a subsidy of up to 20,000 reais (5,200 dollars) granted by AGEHAB, through the ‘Cheque Mais Moradia’ programme for construction, to poor families with incomes of up to three minimum wages (about 740 dollars), said Dutra, the head of AGEHAB.

Two workers install solar panels on a house in the Maria Pires Perillo housing complex, an additional benefit for the poor families who are buying their homes at a very low cost. The Goiana Housing Agency of the state government of Goias, in central Brazil, subsidises most of the housing and the solar energy. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Two workers install solar panels on a house in the Maria Pires Perillo housing complex, an additional benefit for the poor families who are buying their homes at a very low cost. The Goiana Housing Agency of the state government of Goias, in central Brazil, subsidises most of the housing and the solar energy. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The families settled in the complex are only paying the complementary financing from the Federal Economic Fund, a government bank.

“A 44-square-metre house, like the ones in the complex, are built with materials that cost 29,000 reais (7,500 dollars), but the cost can be reduced if the purchase is collective,” estimated Dutra. So the ‘Cheque Mais Moradia’ is insufficient, but almost enough.

If the beneficiary families are in charge of construction, working together collectively, or if the mayor’s office provides the labour, the houses can be built practically without running up a debt, Dutra said.

The housing complexes are aimed at the most needy local families, since AGEHAB does not have the resources to assist everyone, she said.

Palmeiras de Goiás was included in the system because the population grew well above the state average, due to immigration. New meat, dairy and animal feed industries attracted many people looking for work.

Generating electricity from solar panels is a novelty of the last two years in the Goiás housing programme, but solar energy was already used in social housing projects for heating water – there are solar boilers on every rooftop.

It is a cheaper and more accessible technology, quite widespread in Brazil, even in the Northeast region, where people are not used to bathing with hot water, due to the high local temperatures.

Patricia Soares de Oliveira, who was the first to receive solar panels as a test in 2017, stands in front of her house and next to an electric meter that reads "danger of electric shock". Her power bill in this social housing complex on the outskirts of Palmeiras de Goiás in central Brazil has fallen to one-fifth of what she previously paid. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Patricia Soares de Oliveira, who was the first to receive solar panels as a test in 2017, stands in front of her house and next to an electric meter that reads “danger of electric shock”. Her power bill in this social housing complex on the outskirts of Palmeiras de Goiás in central Brazil has fallen to one-fifth of what she previously paid. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Photovoltaic electricity generation has immense potential in Brazil. In the Midwest, solar radiation from a 30-square-metre rooftop could produce five times the electricity consumed by a low-income family, estimated Dennys Azevedo, an engineer who is works manager at AGEHAB.

That generation would be enough for 3.5 households consuming the national average, 157 kilowatts/hour per month, he told IPS.

But the rules set by the National Electric Energy Agency (Aneel), the Brazilian regulatory body, do not allow consumers to sell the energy they generate. The only benefit they receive is that the energy that they generate and consume is deducted from their electric bill.

The houses of the Maria Perillo Residential complex, for example, only have two solar panels, which occupy only about one-fifth of the rooftop. An additional panel would exceed the consumption of local families.

That rule, which does not exist in countries that have greatly expanded solar generation, such as Germany, is difficult to eliminate because of “pressure from distribution companies that would lose market share,” said Azevedo.

In addition, these power companies want to charge a tax for distributed (decentralised) solar generation, basically a tax for the use of the power lines, a cost that is currently subsidised, according to them. But “we’ve all already paid an availability tax” for the power grid, said the engineer.

Another restriction is the importation of equipment not yet manufactured in Brazil. The prices depend on the exchange rate, and any devaluation of the national currency makes everything more expensive, making planning impossible, he argued.

In addition, multiple expensive taxes raise the prices of solar equipment in Brazil, cancelling out part of the cost reduction for all solar energy components, said Azevedo, who explained that efforts are being made to avoid that taxation, “perhaps by buying equipment through the United Nations,” and to obtain funds for new projects.