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Across Arakan State there are many different types of terrain and diverse ecosystems. From the mountainous forests of the Arakan Roma to the estuaries of the Kaladan and Laymro rivers, a wealth of flora and fauna unique to the region can be found. Sadly, in recent years many species have been threatened by the government's commercial exploitation of Arakan State's valuable natural resources.
The most significant damage has been inflicted on the rivers, especially the Laymro and Kaladan. These rivers are home to thousands of species of fish, many of which have never been studied. The point at which the estuaries of the Kaladan and Laymro converge is surrounded by one of the world's most fertile plains; this area covers approximately 3,640 square kilometres from upper Kyauktaw Township to Sitetway, and is ideal for rice production. Over 85 % of Arakan State's cultivated farmland is located along the valleys of these rivers.
In recent years, a number of projects have been planned to commercially exploit Arakan's waterways. These projects will bring in revenue for the government, while devastating the environment and directly precipitating major human rights violations. The most notable of these projects are the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility, the Laymro hydropower dam and Shwe Gas and Oil Pipelines to China.
If these projects go ahead, extreme environmental damage will almost certainly occur, as the military government has historically practiced a policy of complete disregard for ecosystems, biodiversity and the migratory paths of important species. Even the smallest change to delicate ecosystems such as these can cause a long series of unpredictable changes, forcing villagers to adapt their lifestyles impossibly quickly, causing starvation and disease among those unable to adapt. We expect to see the following:
Destruction of mangrove forests and shrimp farms along the Arakan coast and in the river estuary
Extermination of numerous marine species, many of which are essential sources of food for locals, throughout the Kaladan River systemWidespread deforestation to make way for river modification and the Paletwa of Chin State – Mizoram highway
Blocking the access of fish species to the ocean and to spawning grounds, leading to the depletion of fish stocks and eventually extinction
Degrading natural habitats by altering river currents and decreasing oxygen levels, encouraging superfluous weed and algae growth
Causing trees and plant life to rot in the newly-made reservoir, releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases
Flooding – Due to bad planning, similar projects in the past have led to the destruction of thousands of homes during the rainy season
Less famously, Arakan is home to a number of ancient hardwood forests, most of which are located in the Arakan Roma mountain range. These forests are home to many endangered species such as elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, hornbills and various species of giant turtle – the latter two of which are close to extinction.
Over the years, the Burmese military regime has sold logging concessions for these areas to foreign countries and businesses, which has had a series of environmental impacts on the region. Encroachment on forests has disrupted the habitats, and thus the lives, of many wild animals, a number of which are considered to be endangered species internationally. The rapid change of terrain has triggered damaging knock-on effects in rural areas. In the absence of forests, floods have occurred more frequently, destroying crops and possessions, and in the worst cases forcing people to leave their farms and homes. In other areas logging has had the opposite effect, provoking long droughts.
In addition to the lack of participation, the mismanagement of Burma's economy, and human security concerns, there are significant environmental concerns with the proposed oil and gas pipelines to China.
Sea-based sources of pollution by oil spills from tanker traffic, and from oil exploration and production, threaten the healthy and largely intact ecosystem of the Arakan coast and living marine resources and habitats in the Bay of Bengal. Approximately 400 million live in the Bay's catchment area, many subsisting at or below the poverty level. The coastal and offshore waters of the region support numerous fisheries of great socio-economic importance to the countries bordering the Bay and provide for direct employment of over two million fishermen.
There are several environmental dangers involved in the commercial production and transport of natural gas including the leakage of chemicals used in the drilling process as well as potential gas blowouts. Once they reach the seabed, drilling wastes that include volatile organic compounds rob the water and bottom sediments of oxygen and as a result kill large proportions of life on the ocean floor, including shellfish beds. Toxic brine generated in the exploration process is also often dumped on or offshore.
Mangrove forests provide a vital natural protection against cyclones, storm surges, and tidal waves. The world has become painfully aware of the dangers of mangrove destruction after the 2004 Asian Tsunami and Burma's cyclones Nargis in 2008 and Giri in 2010. The Arakan (Rakhine) mangroves, a subset of the Myanmar Coastal Mangroves, are important for coastal protection in an area that frequently suffers from monsoon storms. They are also recognised for their biodiversity. The area, until recently 60,000 square acres in size, has already been devastated by the establishment of shrimp farms, harvesting of firewood, and infrastructure development for oil exploration in the onshore Block M. The pipeline construction cutting through the mangroves will cause further destruction and make the people of Arakan State more vulnerable to damage from cyclones and storm surges. The development of an oil terminal in Kyaukphru that includes oil tanker traffic and oil storage facilities also put the mangroves and local marine life and wildlife at risk if there are any spills or improper discharge of waste.
Arakan's coastal mangroves are part of the biologically diverse Arakan wetlands, one of the last wintering grounds of the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpipers. An international research team performing one of the first surveys of the Arakan coast in 2008 found 84 of the unique birds as well as several other globally threatened species, including Indian Skimmers and Sarus Cranes. The team noted that the coastal zones are currently largely healthy ecosystems. This all may change soon, however, as this area is slated to support an oil terminal and storage facility, central processing platform, onshore gas terminal, and the beginning of the trans-national pipelines. 442,000 barrels of oil will be off-loaded at the coastal port per day. A spokeswoman from BirdLife International noted that in order to save the spoon-billed sandpiper from extinction we need to identify and conserve not only its breeding sites, but its migration stopover sites, and wintering grounds too. This may never happen, as a critical habitat for an unknown number of species may be ruined before it has been adequately studied.
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