As many as 40,000 gorgeously plumed birds known as the Gurney’s pitta thrive in the lush lowland rainforests of Burma. Across the border, Thailand’s last five pairs are guarded around the clock against snakes and human predators.
The bird’s status is among many reasons Burma is regarded as one of Asia’s last bastions of biodiversity – and why environmentalists view the country’s recent steps toward opening its doors with some fear.
Burma has avoided the rapid, often rampant development seen in Thailand and other parts of Asia because of decades of isolation brought on by harsh military rule. But as foreign investors begin pouring in, activists say endemic corruption, virtually non-existent environmental laws and a long-repressed civil society make it “ripe for environmental rape”.
The rush is already on. Airliners bound for Rangoon, the nation’s largest city, are booked up with businesspeople looking for deals, along with throngs of tourists. Singapore dispatched a delegation with 74 company representatives in March, while the Malaysians sent a high-level investment mission focused on property development, tourism, rubber and oil palm plantations.
Pianporn Deetes of green group International Rivers said: “The ‘development invasion’ will speed up environmental destruction and is also likely to lead to more human rights abuses.
“Industries will move very fast, while civil society is just beginning to learn about the impacts.”
Positioned at the core of one of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, Burma is endowed with plant and animal life of the flanking Himalayas, Malay peninsula, Indian subcontinent and mainland south-east Asia. Only three countries in the world have more extensive tropical forests: Brazil, India and the Congo. Burma is home to 1,099 of south-east Asia’s 1,324 bird species, and to extensive coral reefs.
And unexploited rivers, onshore and offshore oil deposits and minerals abound.
Robert Tisard, who heads the Wildlife Conservation Society in Burma, said of the latter: “The scale is just massive. It just dwarfs everything else in surrounding countries. It could be a curse that they have so many resources.”
Environmentalists say the military-dominated government has an abysmal record of protecting its resources, which are often exploited by enterprises linked to generals and their cronies.
For example, the Yuzana Company operates in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which the government established with considerable fanfare as the world’s largest tiger reserve in 2001. Yuzana has destroyed forests in the area to plant sugar cane, and gold mining is rife.
Jonathan Eames of BirdLife International, which has been tracking the status of the Gurney’s pitta, says efforts to create a park to protect bird’s habitat failed because of the military’s push to replace forests with oil palm plantations.
Foreign enterprises have already taken advantage elsewhere. Thai firms previously decimated teak forests in eastern Burma and are poised to become major players at Dawei, a deep sea port being built by Thailand’s largest construction enterprise, Italian-Thai Development.
Ms Pianporn said a number of Thai companies, faced with increasingly tougher environmental laws at home, are planning to relocate their “dirty industries,” including petrochemical and coal-fired plants, next door.
A surge in hydroelectric projects is also expected, with China leading the charge. However, after strong domestic protests, Burma last September suspended construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River – although environmental groups recently reported that work by the China Power Investment company quietly continues around the dam site.
Chinese loggers have also stripped large areas of northern Kachin state and others threaten southern regions.
Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to the Burmese president, said bids by foreign investors will be scrutinised to ensure they adhere to a policy of sustainable development.
He said: “We … are quite aware of the consequences. We cannot allow our cherished motherland to be destroyed by greedy foreign investors.”