New questions and ideas for Myanmar environmentalists

“Do you see what is wrong with these photos?” Ms. Bouakeo Phounsavath, an environmental official from Laos asked the crowded room of Southeast Asian environmental officials. “There are no women in the photographs. These are pictures of a public consultation on a dam project. Why would there be no women? When the public was consulted about this project, the experts did not consider the participation of Lao women. When you do such assessment, you will need to learn from these lessons – how can you make sure everyone can participate and the process is fair?”

Experts from China, Laos, Cambodia, Australia and the United States answered these and many other questions from nearly 70 participants in Myanmar’s first training on environmental impact assessment. The unprecedented event was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and held in the country’s capital of Naw Pyi Taw from February 16 – 21, 2014.

The conference responded to major changes in Myanmar. Over the past decade, Myanmar commenced numerous large scale development projects, but without establishing any laws or regulations on the protection of the environment. In absence of such standards, projects severely damaged the environment, playing a role in violent conflict across the country.

As Jason Tower, AFSC’s East Asia Quaker International Affairs Representative, noted in his opening remarks during the program, “developing strong environmental laws that incorporate the perspectives and interests of all of Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities is a critical step needed to prevent conflict in the country. … in the past, lack of environmental governance created impressions among some groups that projects brought benefits to one group and environmental damage and hardship to another.”

An ambitious reform process started in 2011 paved the way for the establishment of a new environmental agency in the country, the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF), and the promulgation of an Environmental Protection Law in 2012. However, years of isolation and international sanctions against the country have left it in serious need of knowledge and knowhow on protecting the environment. That is where AFSC’s support based on previous work and a new approach to de-escalating environmental conflict came into play. 

AFSC’s role

In 2009, AFSC opted to take a very new approach to developing solutions to overcome environmental conflict in Southeast Asia. Recognizing that over the past decade, China has become the main proponent of large development projects in mainland Southeast Asia, Jason Tower reached out to experts in China to jointly explore potential solutions to environmental challenges generated by these projects.

While China’s framework for environmental protection has developed almost simultaneously with its astonishing economic growth, it has done little to share these experiences overseas or build regulatory capacity outside of its borders. Given its resources and position in the economies of Southeast Asia, China is in a strong position to help Southeast Asian countries respond to challenges facing the natural environment.

Together with the Chinese Ministry’s Appraisal Center for Environment and Engineering, which is in charge of training China’s environmental experts, AFSC began organizing similar trainings in Southeast Asia.

The first of these was held in Cambodia in 2010. At the training, one Chinese participant, Mr. He Luming, noted that the “activity was an eye opener for the Chinese trainers, who were shocked to discover that for many Cambodian officials, even the most basic concepts ... of environmental impact assessments were completely mysterious.” Mr. Lu went on to raise these findings in a nationwide media publication, generating government interest in supporting China’s role in the project.

Learning about this and other related activities supported by AFSC, Myanmar’s newly established environmental authorities were keen on developing a similar program in their country. Facing pressure to rapidly develop its framework, the Myanmar government requested a training that might share approaches to environmental governance from around the globe.

In response, AFSC teamed up with one of the top environmental law programs in the United States, the Vermont Law School. AFSC and the Vermont Law School brought in experts from China, the United States, Australia, Laos and Cambodia to offer seminars sharing experiences from each respective country. The program hinted at how China, the United States and other countries might work together to find solutions to both local and global problems.

Sharing knowledge, building relationships

The activity also fostered dialogue between government and civil society. Civil society representatives from around the country attended the training. As one representative noted, “this gave us a chance to provide feedback to government officials working on developing the laws.” Representatives from the Chinese Enterprises Chamber in Myanmar, and a Chinese NGO known as the Global Environmental Institute also traveled to the Myanmar capital of Naw Pyi Taw to attend the training.

At a round table discussion on the final day of the program, participants noted that Myanmar should reflect on how China managed to develop so many environmental engineers in such a short period of time. They also learned from the Chinese experience the importance of ensuring that companies and not government pay to clean up the environment.

New solutions and roles

Myanmar is expected to issue a new set of rules and procedures that will strengthen its environmental protection law in the months following the training. Mr. Su Yi of the ACEE shared with Myanmar participants his perspective that the Myanmar government should “work to ensure protection of the environment as the country develops, while also ensuring space for development.”

In discussions between Chinese and Myanmar participants around the training, the two sides noted that working together might not only overcome challenges to environmental protection in Myanmar, but also enable them to respond to collective regional challenges.

Back in China, the ACEE has worked to advocate for the Chinese government to take a more active role in addressing regional environmental issues, helping the Ministry of Environmental Protection see a new role for itself in building capacity overseas. A new path forward, in the cause of protecting a fragile world and preventing conflict, may have begun with these 70 participants.

“Our task now will be to apply these experiences to our efforts to formulate new environmental laws for our country.” Mr. Hla Maung Thein of Myanmar’s environmental agency told the participants at the program’s closing event.