Ecotourism initiative offers lifeline for local communities and threatened wildlife in northern Myanmar

Tim Knight

As northern Myanmar opens its doors to increasing numbers of overseas visitors, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is at the forefront of efforts to ensure that local communities benefit from the opportunities presented by the development of a fledgling ecotourism industry.

Lake Indawgyi in northern Myanmar provides a wintering ground for more than 20,000 migratory birds and a haven for numerous globally threatened species, including the Vulnerable sarus crane and the Critically Endangered white-rumped vulture. This birdwatchers’ paradise has the potential to offer a tourist lifeline for the impoverished communities whose traditional livelihoods have revolved around fishing or farming.

The Vulnerable sarus crane. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

The Vulnerable sarus crane. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Gradual democratic reform in Myanmar has seen the military regime change its strategy and loosen its grip on the reins of environmental management. As a result, NGOs are now being actively encouraged to work with local communities and help protect the country’s valuable natural resources. FFI is helping to develop Lake Indawgyi as a tourist destination, equipping enthusiastic community members with the necessary skills to take advantage of the influx of visitors from overseas, and ensuring that the local population benefits directly from this potential source of income.

There are serious challenges to overcome. The lake is a five-hour drive from the nearest airport, and it is only five years since it was illegal for local people to engage in tourism business. The future of Indawgyi’s globally important biodiversity – and the long-term well-being of local communities – are threatened by illegal artisanal gold mining using mercury, which is causing pollution and sedimentation in the southernmost part of the lake and endangering fish stocks.

Nevertheless, the initial signs are promising. Visitor numbers are steadily rising. There is an increasing demand for the local knowledge of the newly trained guides, who can now earn US$7/day – double the average income of a farmer. Provided that it is carefully managed, responsible ecotourism offers genuine hope for the future, and a sustainable means of generating vital income without jeopardising one of the jewels in the crown of northern Myanmar’s natural heritage.

Source: Fauna and Flora International. Date: 6 January, 2016

Ecotourism initiative offers lifeline for local communities and threatened wildlife in northern Myanmar