A group of Mekong experts are sharing their experiences in assessing the value of biodiversity and ecological services of the Mekong with researchers and policy makers in the basin of the Chindwin River, the largest tributary of Myanmar' longest river, the Ayeyarwady during the two-day workshop hosted by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
The basin, home to around six million residents in the Sagaing region and a few nearby, is considered as one of Myanmar's significant conservation corridors and is rich of biodiversity that can provide valuable ecological services to its residents and Myanmar as a whole, said Prof Win Muang, chairman of the Myanmar Environment Institute, a noted research institute dealing with the environment.
At least 38 species found at the basin are listed as globally threatened. The basin in recent years has been challenged with rapid development that could affect those values. This includes mining activities, logging and the imminent impact of climate change.
Myanma recently put environmental-related laws in place following the new constitution’s promulgated in 2008.
Concerned parties, including academics and policy makers, feel the need for capacity building to timely monitor and assess the environment, and especially how to translate findings into more meaningful and responsive policies to keep up with the development trend.
"There is still a gap between research findings and policy makings that need to be closed," said Dr Thanapon Piman, project leader of the Mainstreaming Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Values into Development Plans for the Chindwin River basin project from the SEI.
The workshop focuses on strengthening capacity building on environmental impact assessments on the Chindwin's ecosystems, economic evaluating and mainstreaming new knowledge into government policies.
Lessons from the Mekong are being shared to workshop participants, who are expected to help enhance the processes for their region.
Charlie Navanugraha, director of Nakhon Phanom University's Research and Development Institute, said his recent study on the ecological values of the floodplain forests in Northeast Thailand shows that resources collected in forests, from bamboos to mushrooms, could yield far higher incomes to the villagers than cutting down trees and turning them into the rice fields - as much as 20 times of their average annual income of around Bt10,000.
"They don't have to destroy their forests to grow rice which yields them far less income while damaging several more of ecological services unnessarily. They want rice, just go buy it with their incomes from the forests," Navanugraha said.
The key challenge, Navanugraha said, is how to make people know this and put it in their future planning.
Pianporn Deetes, Thailand and Myanmar campaign director of International Rivers, said there are a large number of studies available on the Mekong River, including MRC's strategic environmental assessment.
Pianporn said the studies showed there has been huge damage caused by hydropower development, especially on fisheries, agricultural, regional economies and livelihoods of millions.
However, Pianporn said the biggest challenge is countering the fact that decisions are not made based on knowledge. Ecosytem services and social dimensions are not valued, nor taken into account.
Win Muang added: "I expect the workshop to help enhance our knowledge while forging a network between Mekong and the Chindwin experts as well as policy makers for better mainstreaming research findings into future policies and implementations.
"Valuing river ecosystem services can be assessed economically, but their value to your heart, when you feel good seeing a beautiful environment and it inspires you to create lots of good things, it's even more challenging how you will value it, how many kyats shall we pay."