Marking World Wetlands Day on 2 February, Paul Hyman and Melanie Joe reflect on an ongoing project to involve paddleboarders in the conservation of Myanmar’s mangroves, an important area of work that ultimately affects us all
Our project began in 2017 as a collaboration between Worldview Impact Foundation (WIF) and Water Trek Foundation, with support from Worldview International, Starboard and Active360 in the UK. It aimed to help and promote the mangrove restoration project that WIF is implementing at Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park in the Delta Region of Myanmar.
In Yangon we met with incredible Arne Fjortoft, the inspiration and driving force behind the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park then headed west to the coast to explore the Park. We spent a week paddling around the mangroves, meeting local forestry experts, scientists, community and spiritual leaders working there and explored ways in which we could generate interest in this project.
Myanmar’s coastal mangroves were once plentiful, but a combination of natural forces, such as the build-up of sediment and deforestation has left them under threat. Mangrove trees are routinely cut down for charcoal and firewood; they have also been cleared to provide more space for intensive prawn farming and for paddy fields. Only 15% of the mangroves that once grew on Myanmar’s coastline remain.
Mangroves provide more than just fuel and habitat for the unique flora and fauna that thrive there; they also absorb up to five times more CO2 than any other tree and they can offer protection against extreme weather – acting as the first line of defence against cyclones and storm surges, helping to slow such forces down. Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park was established in 2012 to restore mangroves through an ambitious programme of cultivation and replanting. The Park has replanted 4.5 million trees and aims to plant 17 million trees by 2022.
People living outside of the Tropics have limited knowledge or understanding of mangroves and their huge benefits locally and globally. It is difficult to secure investment in a project from people who are remote from it and know little about its benefits.
'Mangroves absorb up to five times more CO2 than any other tree and they can offer protection against extreme weather.'
Mangrove areas are interesting and exotic places to visit by Stand up Paddleboard (SUP). They often have a great natural beauty and tranquility with abundant wildlife. SUP works well as a way to visit such areas as it enables non-polluting access and the standing position provides a good view, enabling the participant to fully enjoy the surroundings while also being physically active. The Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park is one such area and on our 2017 trip we took a good look at the Shwethaungyan (also known as Magyi) area as a location to trial and develop this work. This was a coastal village divided by a wide creek mouth and connected by a small ferry, which perilously moved cars, people and motorbikes between the two halves. We found that it has all the requirements for an active holiday/trip where people could get their first introduction to mangroves and learn about their benefits while also enjoying the local culture and beautiful natural environment.
Our plan is that by introducing people to mangrove areas with an explanation provided by experts in the field, we can enable them to understand the significance of mangroves and their importance to everyone. As well as giving participants opportunities to get involved with planting mangroves at the Climate Park, part of their trip cost would include an investment in planting made through the Ecofriend, an active partnership between travellers worried about the world they live in and communities in the developing world.
Travel and tourism bring many problems to undeveloped areas in addition to benefits. We would ensure that damage to the local environment is minimised by providing alternatives to wasteful consumption. For example, Myanmar is very dependent on filtered water and most of this is consumed from single-use plastic bottles. Participants would be given and encouraged to use reusable filter bottles to use on the trip. We also plan to work with the only local hotel to see how disposables can be replaced with reusables, food waste minimised and bicycles provided for local trips. We also plan to encourage participants to join in the local beach and village clean-ups recently started by community leaders in Magyi. We were invited to be part of the first plastic clean up during our stay and found it a great way to meet local people.
The Climate Park is also providing employment for many local people who are paid to plant mangroves as a replacement for cutting mangroves for charcoal burning and shrimp farming. We would be helping to fund more opportunities for well-paid local employment.
Although this project would initially focus on one area of Myanmar we expect that the lessons learned from it could be applied in many mangrove areas. People enjoy travel to exotic locations and activity holidays but many experience guilt that they are damaging local environments and contributing to climate change. This project would establish a format for a truly sustainable form of adventure travel, which connects people to an area not as visitors but as participants in positive, locally and globally beneficial forms of development.
Our plan is to take a group of people to the Climate Park in November/December 2019. We will introduce them to the mangrove planting and the forestry experts leading this work. We will paddleboard around the mangroves and research how this changes their understanding of mangroves and their willingness to help restoration work.
We would like to film the group on their journey of discovery and use the film to bring the Climate Park project to many more people. We hope to film members of the group travelling to Myanmar, collecting their thoughts on mangroves before exposure to the Park, during their time at the Park and afterwards.