Where the heart is: Myanmar’s village conservation committees give people reason to stay

Location: Pyinbugyi, Myanmar. 4th Jun 2018

For those who live along the coast of the Pyinbugyi Islands at the mouth of Southeastern Myanmar’s Tevoy River, fishing has always been a way of life. Unfortunately, of late, commercial offshore fishing has meant that many locals aren’t able to fill their nets as they used to. Rice farming, another source of livelihood, has also become challenging as the clearing of mangroves has made the soil acidic and unsuitable for agriculture.
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A fishing village in Pyinbugyi Tract © Hélène Marre / MFF

According to the women who collect clams and mud crabs for subsistence, crustacean populations are also in decline. “Ten years ago the mud crabs were double the size of the ones I collect now,” said San Mu, a local crab-catcher. “We release any pregnant crabs we find, but many people still take the small juveniles. We need to come together and agree on regulations to better manage our natural resources.” 

Limited opportunities to earn a living have been driving away young people, along with their creativity and innovation, with many of them heading to  neighbouring countries to find work.

“We all want to stay here with our families,” says 15-year old Kyi Htay, “but there are just no opportunities for us.”

The rapid resource and livelihood loss has also diminished people’s sense of belonging to the islands, and therefore their sense of ownership and interest in protecting the environment.

Through its Small Grant Facility, MFF supported two projects in Pyinbugyi to improve the coordination of community activities. Both projects helped to form Village Environmental Conservation Committees (VECCs), and provided training in the establishment and management of Community-Based Organisations. They also built the technical capacity of VECC members to map local natural resources and develop action plans to improve the environment and sustainably manage their resources.   

A group of community members sit on the floor during a discussion

Win Sein Naing from MSN (second from right) facilitates a discussion with VECC Members and MFF staff © Hélène Marre / MFF

VECCs were set up in 10 villages, each with 10-12 elected members including a chairperson, a secretary, elders and advisors. The newly created VECCS’s have been at the forefront of all activities in Pyinbugyi that MFF has supported, helping identify direct beneficiaries to receive support for livelihood activities, and coordinating mangrove rehabilitation and conservation activities.  

With the creation of the VECCs, Win Sein Naing from the Mangrove Service Network, a local civil society group that has been working with MFF, has noticed a change in the outlook of people on the island. “Now people here are more interested in their environment. They feel empowered as they know how and why to protect it.” 

“The VECC has given us an opportunity to participate in village-level decision making and learn about how we can help manage the environment we rely on every day,” agrees Kyi Htay. “Now I am more confident and I want to support activities in the village that will help my family in the future.” 

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Kyi Htay (right); her aunt, Mi San (left); and friend Than Than Yu (centre) share their feedback and future plans for the VECC © Hélène Marre / MFF

The VECC chairperson from Kan Maw Kalay also noted: “Before establishing the committee it was very difficult to get volunteers for any village activity. Now it is very easy, because people know it will reduce erosion and protect their rice fields.”

As a next step in their evolution, the VECCs are planning to set up community funds that would provide small low-interest loans to support members’ livelihood activities, as soon as they develop the skills to manage such a complex finance structure.  

The VECCs are also leading the development of a Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) around Pyinbugyi to improve the sustainable use of fisheries and other aquatic resources. The Marine Science Association of Myanmar, in collaboration with the VECCs, began implementing an MFF-funded LMMA project in May 2018.

This story was contributed by Hélène Marre, Programme Assistant for MFF, with support from Zin Myo Thu, Head of the Myanmar Country Office. Hélène and Zin drafted the piece following the IUCN Strategic Communications for Conservation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand.

Kyi Htay (right); her aunt, Mi San (left); and Than Than Yu (centre) share their feedback and future plans for the VECC

Kyi Htay (right); her aunt, Mi San (left); and Than Than Yu ... , Pyinbugyi, Myanmar © Hélène Marre / MFF