Trip to Myanmar - magic of mangroves
I started this trip with optimism, but also some uncertainty about what we could achieve in Myanmar - country long closed off to the world some 5,500 miles away from London. Bremley from NGO Worldview Impact Foundation, who asked us to get involved, was positive about mangroves. As a fairly regular flyer, I often feel uneasy about my carbon footprint. I knew that mangrove trees were good at taking in and storing carbon and that we had lost many of them around the world. That’s where my knowledge ended. I wanted to find out what we could do to help.
The journey started at Bangkok airport, where I met up with friend and colleague Mel, who had been travelling in the Far East since New Year. After a short time catching up, we set off to Starboard HQ to pick up equipment. We thought this might be a quick hello, but in fact Svein, the company founder, is the perfect host.
We spent the day and evening meeting different Starboard people and trying out new boards on the lake next to their offices. By 11pm, when we headed back to central Bangkok, I had slept just a few hours in the past 36. I was still feeling excited and intrigued about the weeks ahead.
Next day, we were invited to a Buddhist blessing of Starboard’s new offices, followed by a feast of the best Thai food. Then, it was off to the airport for Yangoon.
In Yangoon, we met up with the Worldview Impact Foundation team, led by Founder Arnie Fjortoft and Chair U Aye Lwin. Arne founded the Climate Park and WIF, and has worked hard for decades to make this project a success. Together with U Win Maung, the CEO of the Mangrove Projects, they gave us a detailed overview of the Climate project and the importance of mangroves, both locally and globally. This was a revelation of an area of environmental management, which had completely passed me by. The team are experts in the field and their project covers every aspect of making the Park work both for local people and the wider world. Mangrove planting provides employment as well as protecting drinking water (mangrove roots act as filters to remove salt water), reducing coastal soil erosion and protecting coastal communities from cyclone damage.
We headed off to the west coast by night bus. This was an 8-hour journey on bumpy roads on a coach called “Wild West”. At 4am, we reached the coast and transferred to motorbike taxis to reach the small village of Shwethaungyan, locally known as Magyi. This was great way to arrive – riding along the coast on a narrow dirt track road and hearing waves break. At sunrise, the village looked stunning. Set either side of a river mouth facing the Indian Ocean and hardly touched by development, it is in many ways a tropical paradise.
On our first day in the village, we were invited to join in with a very high energy and successful local community beach clean-up. It was the first of its kind at Shwethaungyanthe, but more are now planned. Many local schoolchildren, their teachers and residents took part in the event. Truckloads of plastic trash were removed from the waterfront area. We particularly liked working alongside local kids. They made such a great effort to communicate with us and make us feel welcome, even though their English was poor and our Burmese non-existent. Most affected beach areas were restored to an almost pristine state. They hoped to keep it that way with a new landfill site being opened up and bins provided around the busiest beach area near the ferry. We sponsored two of these and wished them well in their local battle against the tide of plastic waste engulfing most of the world.
Next day, we decided to start exploring the mangrove plantation areas with a 25km-paddle to the end of the Magyi River and back. We packed coconuts, bananas and a machete, and set off into the mangroves. This was a magical trip setting - out mid-morning and reaching home well after dark.
We ended up spending an entire week at the Climate Park. We explored the area by paddleboards and met various people involved in the project. We gained knowledge of different types of mangrove plants and their value to the ecology system and local community. We also learned how mangroves are planted and propagated. We even got to plant a few ourselves under the guidance of Aye Lwyn and his expert team.
In addition to seeing the mangroves, planting and discussing with experts to get a good understanding of the project, we wanted to see how the area could work as activity destination. Specifically, we were interested in discovering how exploring the area by SUP and learning about the ecological importance of mangroves could be combined in one trip.
We were also looking to talk about investment into the project. The Climate Park is in the process of developing a currency, which enables people to invest in blocks of trees at an affordable price per tree. Exact costs depend naturally on the terrain as well as planting conditions. The idea is that people can hold onto their investment or sell it at a later date. Technology could eventually allow investors to monitor the progress of the mangrove trees they have planted. If an individual invested in 1,000 or more trees, they could follow the growth of their allotted investment area on Google Earth. The exact minimum number to make this viable is not yet set.
This concept potentially makes it an attractive proposition for groups and organisations to make an investment, which is both tangible and can be monitored. For organisations, there would be an added benefit by enabling them to include a link on their website to promote their investment and commitment to the environment.
Unfortunately, small numbers of trees are not viable to monitor due to technology and administration costs. There are also inevitably some saplings lost in early years’ sun harm, crabs and other natural damage.
Our home at Shwethaungyan was the small guesthouse facing the river mouth and open sea - just 50m from the water’s edge. The house is not big enough to accommodate more than a few people, but a new hotel has been built facing the sea at the edge of the village. It is small with just 30 rooms – but comfortable and with a nice restaurant serving really good local food. Burmese cuisine has been influenced by Chinese, India and Thai Cuisines. On the coast, seafood is extensively used. Sampling local food was always something to look forward to.
We did the long road journey back to Yangoon on a day bus. It turned out to be a far more tiring journey. The day-time bus was scruffier and very overcrowded, and the day seemed to go on forever. It was all worth it that evening, though, as we met up with Ah Moon, a pop star from Myanmar. We spent a fascinating evening chatting about her work to help promote the Climate Park and as a Trash Hero clearing up waterways in Yangon.
A few more days in Yangoon gave us time to paddle on the huge Inya Lake and visit the Great Dragon (Shwedagon) Pagoda. More importantly, we had the opportunity to meet with Arne again and run through our ideas to spread the word about the importance of mangroves. Arne is keen for us to have a part of the Climate Park dedicated for paddleboards, so we can visit, plant trees and track how they are growing. This could provide a good way for people to maintain contact with the project and get a visible indication of what a difference their donation is actually making.
From our trip, we understand that the restoration of mangroves is vital to Myanmar and the rest of the world. We experienced first-hand the beauty of the Climate Park area and the excitement of paddling there. Going forward, we plan to encourage more people to join us to learn about mangroves while having a great time paddling in this exotic country.
Our first Myanmar trip is planned for week starting 20th November. This will be mainly friends and colleagues, but it’s definitely open to anyone with a sense of adventure and interest in learn about a valuable project in a remarkable area. We believe the trip will also appeal to anyone who wants to make a difference on climate change and assist in the sustainable development of a part of the world, where many people’s lives are dominated by poverty.
This project is a collaboration of Watertrek, Worldview Impact Foundation, Active360 and we hope many other organisations and individuals.