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Natural Capital Approach In Myanmar & Interview With Mark Gough

Mar 15 2015 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Jon Hoekstra

The sun rises above the horizon as a crimson ball, veiled by a haze of humidity that blankets the early morning landscape. Men in plaid longyis and women in wide-brimmed hats, their faces painted with creamy thanaka, make their way from thatched houses to tend rice paddies before the heat becomes oppressive. It’s a timeless scene that has played out more or less this way for centuries in the fertile lowland plains of Myanmar.

The pastoral tranquility of the Bago countryside I was driving through stands in stark contrast to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital city, which was meticulously designed and constructed from scratch less than 10 years ago. There, with rice paddies still being tended on the outskirts of the city, the national government of Myanmar is embracing modernity with an emphasis on order and efficiency. Workers drive from designated residential zones to ministry offices along wide, manicured boulevards spanning eight, ten, and – in front of the Parliament Building – 22 lanes, which are mostly empty now, but point to a bustling vision for the future. Visitors like me are put up in sprawling hotels and meet in a spacious brick and glass conference center in the hotel zone.

“After a half-century of isolation, Myanmar still has what everyone around them used to have more of — abundant natural capital.”

The stark juxtaposition of old and new, tradition and modernity, reflects transformations happening throughout Myanmar as the country emerges from military rule and starts to establish a nominally civilian democracy following general elections in 2010.

After a half-century of isolation, Myanmar still has what everyone around them used to have more of — abundant natural capital such as their expansive forests and free-flowing rivers. Myanmar also has a treasure of biodiversity, including endangered tigers and critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins. How Myanmar develops will determine whether their natural wealth is liquidated for short term gains, or protected and managed to sustain long-term benefit.

I traveled with a small group to Myanmar a few weeks ago for a series of meetings about natural capital assessments that WWF is conducting, and to attend the country’s annual Green Economy Green Growth forum (GEGG, The forum convenes national and international experts to offer policy and technical input on sustainable development to the government and its ministries. In his opening remarks at the forum, the President of Myanmar, H.E. Thein Sein, cited climate change, population growth, and declining natural resources as the chief challenges for sustainable development, and asserted that resource-intensive growth is no longer a viable development strategy. He emphasized the imperative of using natural capital efficiently, and to “integrate environmental conservation into all development activities.”

When WWF formally opened its office in Myanmar last year, WWF-US CEO Carter Roberts showed the President a series of maps from WWF’s initial natural capital assessment of the Tanintharyi region. The maps, created using NatCap’s InVEST software, highlighted the spatial distribution of carbon stocks, water yield, and coastal protection by mangroves and other natural habitats. The President, a trained geographer, immediately recognized the value of the assessment, and asked for a natural capital assessment of the entire country. He said that he wants his country to develop in a way that raises people out of poverty without destroying natural capital, in keeping with his government’s commitment to sustainable development.

Click here to view enlarged map.

One example of these pivotal development choices is playing out right now in the Tanintharyi region where Myanmar and Thailand are pursuing a joint venture to link Bangkok to the port town of Dawei with an improved road and a new high-speed rail line to transport goods and promote trade. The development corridor bisects one of the largest intact forests in Southeast Asia and is vitally important as tiger habitat. How and where the road and rail are built will determine whether tiger habitat is fragmented or if ecological connectivity is preserved. WWF’s hope is that the transportation infrastructure will incorporate tunnels and viaducts so that wildlife corridors are left intact.

To meet the country’s demand for natural capital information, WWF Myanmar is developing staff capacity to apply the natural capital approach and, as part of that approach, to also train the government and other partners. As first steps, Nirmal Bhagabati, Adam Dixon and Nasser Olwero trained GIS and other staff from the Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF) to use InVEST, and are now in discussions with them about how best to collaborate on refinement of the natural capital assessment of the Tanintharyi region and on the national scale assessment requested by the President. This work is being conducted under an MOU with MOECAF, and with funding from the Helmsley Foundation. By mapping where natural capital delivers valuable ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, water yield, and coastal protection; and by comparing how natural capital values change under different development scenarios; they aim to reveal tradeoffs and to inform pending development decisions in a way that will preserve Myanmar’s natural capital.

WWF also led a half-day symposium on sustainable infrastructure at the GEGG forum, co-sponsored with Infra Eco Network Europe (IENE, Nat Cap’s Lisa Mandle shared examples from Colombia and Peru of how natural capital approaches can be harnessed for sustainable road planning and development. She highlighted how infrastructure affects and is also dependent on natural capital, and emphasized the importance of taking natural capital into account early in the planning process to reduce costs and improve outcomes for the people of Myanmar and for nature.

“In Myanmar today, there is an unprecedented and unparalleled opportunity to apply the natural capital approach and concepts about sustainable infrastructure to guide more sustainable development while conserving biodiversity.”

Nirmal Bhagabati presented the initial assessment of natural capital in the Tanintharyi region. And three experts from IENE presented several case studies of road design and construction in Europe, and offered suggestions about ways to minimize the negative impacts of roads on wildlife and ecosystems by conducting environmental impact assessments and incorporating tunnels and bridges into road design in order to preserve safe wildlife passages and improve human safety.

Impressed by the natural capital expertise of our group, the Director General of the Environmental Conservation Department, Nay Aye, formally requested WWF’s assistance in developing a national Green Economy Policy and Strategic Framework. The Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, U Win Tun, formally announced our cooperation during his closing remarks at the GEGG forum.

In Myanmar today, there is an unprecedented and unparalleled opportunity to apply the natural capital approach and concepts about sustainable infrastructure to guide more sustainable development while conserving biodiversity. Myanmar’s neighbors largely exploited their natural capital while pursuing resource and carbon-intensive development during the latter half of the 20th century. Myanmar essentially leap-frogged that era, and is initiating its economic development with its natural capital largely intact. Myanmar also has the “latecomer advantage” of being able to learn from what others have done. So far, they seem to be seizing on that advantage by embracing the natural capital concept. Stay tuned in the coming months and years as WWF, the Natural Capital Project and others work with the government and other NGOs in Myanmar to apply the natural capital approach and realize their aspirations for “green growth.”


Mark Gough is a Keynote Speaker at the Natural Capital Symposium


The Natural Capital Coalition is a multi-stakeholder, not for profit platform, to build the business case and support the uptake of natural capital valuation, management and disclosure in business and investor decision making. Its aim is to achieve a shift in corporate behavior to preserve and enhance, rather than deplete the earth’s natural capital.

When did you first start thinking and hearing about natural capital?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was working for a publisher, and was looking at the impacts of paper sourcing and forestry. One of the things we as an industry pulled together was a system called The Publishers’ database for Responsible Environmental Paper sourcing – a approach that allowed us to go beyond certification to the broader issues of sourcing. We were starting to think about the social and other values associated with paper products.

During your tenure as Head of Sustainability at The Crown Estate – [an independent UK property company, with holdings of £9.9 billion] – did you have any “aha” moments?

The Crown Estate has been actively involved in piloting a methodology for corporate natural capital accounting, attempting to integrate it into its decision making. We looked at one of our estates that in standard reporting terms was showing as having negative value, but when you visit it or work there it does not feel like a negative experience. It was only when we started to incorporate the natural capital that we were able to demonstrate the estate’s total contribution.

I personally bought a house near the largest oak forest in the south of England, and I spend as much time as possible outside, with my kids. I love climbing up hillsides and a walk is not a walk unless you get lost. I feel so fortunate to have the role I now have at the NCC, working with some amazing people to make sure that these areas and experiences are valued and included in decision making.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen natural capital thinking evolve?

One of the reasons I took the role [as Executive Director] is that I think it’s fascinating how many organizations and people are coming together around this. It’s a sign of the more interconnected world we live in. With previous protocols it was often a few key experts coming together. Now, all these organizations, the corporate world, NGOs are all working as one. That is pretty unique, I think.

What’s been the biggest challenge to developing the Natural Capital Protocol?

Having lots of different organisations and people involved means that are a lot of different views about what we should do as well as lots of different existing and evolving methodologies in how to address it. The success of the NCC is that it aims to offer a platform for all of these to be explored and an opportunity to take the best elements from each of them. It is really important that the result is simple and easy to engage with, if it is going to get the traction needed to significantly shift corproate behaviour.

Another challenge is going to be the timeline. We intend to have global launch of the Natural Capital Protocol in June 2016. This means there is a lot to do over the next 15 months. We will be piloting a version zero with business engagement partners and be running a public consultation in early 2016 to allow everyone to comment on the process. We are also intending to publish two sector guides on apparel and food and support the development of finance sector guide.

What’s your vision of what needs to happen after the protocol?

The protocol version 1 is just the first step. It will need to evolve as thinking in this area does and as we learn more from the companies who use it. There will be a great opportunity for a forum of like minded companies to come together and share their experiences as we do this. We also need to make sure the protocol is being used and this means scaling up the roll out. For this we will need examples and good practice. There are many other supporting questions around policy, data, reporting and the integration with other capitals, so we won’t run out of work anytime soon.

What do you hope to learn at the Natural Capital Symposium?

Being new in post this is really an opportunity for me to listen and learn from some of the amazing people working in this field. The Natural Capital Project is a member of the NCC and I hope to come away with some clear opportunities where the NCC will be able to help. I also hope to be able to make some new friends.


Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project.


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