Open borders make way for pollution in Myanmar | Global Ideas | DW | 22.12.2015
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Open borders make way for pollution in Myanmar

Researchers warn that Myanmar's Mergui archipelago should be made a protected area before the signs of human-caused pollution reach its unspoiled waters.

Imagine this, says Marine biologist Manuel Marinelli, as he paints a picture of unbearable cruelty: Somewhere in the African savanna, two vehicles connected by a 200-meter-long barbed-wire fence plough overland, clothes-lining zebras, lions, gazelles, and elephants. From their catch, gazelles are plucked and sold as steak. The rest, now dead, is left to rot.

"If anybody did that, they would go to jail," says Marinelli, a former Greenpeace bottom-trawling expert. "But that's what is happening underwater every single day." Most of what happens to marine life, he adds, happens out of sight and out of people's minds. The same disregard applies to plastic waste in the oceans, he told DW.

Last month, the Austrian native and founder of nonprofit #link: Manaia# sailed to the pristine coastal region of the Mergui Archipelago, where 800 islands lie off the coast of Myanmar and stretch down beyond the border with Thailand.

The country's isolation for the past 60 years has granted the sea there rich coral cover and ensured the continued and colorful existence of 365 species of reef fish.

Nevertheless, knowledge about the region's ecosystem is relatively scarce.
Marinelli is hoping to change that. Using a donated catamaran, he plans to help journalists, scientists and mapping technicians monitor the remote region, and to facilitate a microplastic research operation led by German marine biologist Julia Hager.

Creating a baseline

The aim, he says, is to share his findings with NGOs, and for Hager to submit her data to UNESCO, which nominated the area a World Heritage Site in 2014. Their hope is that they can prevent the islands and clean waters that lap at their shores from falling prey to the worst effects of economic development.

A man free diving

Moken free diver Nguk Suriyan Katale in the feature documentary 'No Word for Worry' about the nomadic tribe's fight for survival

"Once it gets more developed, the more used it is, [it becomes] really hard to argue that it's important for it to remain an untouched spot," says Marinelli, who stresses the archipelago's importance both for local wildlife and for the Moken, a shrinking 3,000-strong nomadic seafaring tribe.

For at least 300 years, the Moken, or "sea gypsies," have relied on the ocean to survive. They freedive the emerald blue waters to depths of 20 meters, holding their breath for seven minutes while they spear fish or scavenge the seabed for molluscs.

Catching no more than their daily needs dictate, they are the epitome of sustainable fishers. Anthropologists believe they have roamed the archipelago off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand for centuries - spending up to eight months a year living on wooden kabang boats.

Changing seascape

The #link: are already familiar with the environmental damage that comes with development. Three years ago, Nguk Suriyan Katale - a skilled Moken free-diver - participated in cleanup dives south of Phuket. After a day's work, he'd found a big oil drum, a car tire, and large trawler nets used to sweep the ocean floor among the 15 tons of garbage collected.

"If there's a lot of garbage underwater, it will reduce the sea life population," Katale said, citing turtles that die from eating plastic. "And fishing nets that get caught in the corals can kill them, and local marine life."

A Moken standing in a dug-out canoe

The last sea nomads in Burma mainly live in small villages on islands in the Southern part of the Mergui Archipelago, but they still use the last traditional Kabang boats as their home while fishing and collecting food. The smaller dug-out canoes are called Cha-Pan.

Hager, who first encountered large volumes of plastic litter in the ocean while studying sea lions in the US, describes it as a particularly worrisome pollutant. Across the board.

"Microplastic is a danger to all life on earth, not just animals in the sea, but also to us humans," she said. "It has the ability to absorb chemicals in the ocean like pesticides, medicines, flame retardants. And all those chemicals have the potential to accumulate in the tissue of the fish."

Encroaching problem

Research on the fringes of the archipelago has revealed that four out of five beach samples have already absorbed microplastic - largely styrofoam. Some of it, Hager explains, comes from loading material onto fishing boats and from local construction sites.

The greater the number of commercial development and fishing projects that are allowed, the greater the likelihood of finding plastic particles in nearby waters.

Without protected status, development of the Mergui Archipelago on Myanmar's coast could easily suffer a similar, unfortunate fate. For people like Katale, it would not only change the look of his native waters - but also the very way he lives.

A woman collects scientific samples on the beach

Hager taking samples on the beaches of Koh Phayam near the Mergui Archipelago. In her findings, only one out of five samples did not contain any microplastics

His message is gentle, but clear: "It would be good if people can help collect garbage anytime they go to the beach or get in the water, just a little bit will help."

The archipelago hosts blotched stingrays, ghost pipefish and ribbon eels among expanses of untouched coral. The question is, can this perfect marine ecosystem be prevented from falling prey to the heavy hand of progress?

Some information was obtained courtesy of the Project Moken

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