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Science Meets Art In Myanmar

Jun 21 2016 | Posted in: Research Highlight
By Stacey Solie

The day of the art opening, in Yangon, it rained hard and flooded the streets.

A new WWF Myanmar report  and website highlight how Myanmar’s natural capital—including its forests, coastlines, waters, and biodiversity—sustains the country’s economy and the well-being of its people.

When Myanmar held its first general elections in decades last November, WWF’s Hanna Helsingen wasn’t sure what to expect.

Before the polls opened at 6am she donned a longyi—Myanmar’s version of a sari—and took a stroll through downtown Yangon.

“I saw this crazy guy coming down the street, waving a purple pinky in the air,” she said. At first alarmed, she quickly realized he wasn’t crazed, but ecstatic.

He had just come from a polling booth, and had dipped his finger in ink to show he had already voted. She saw people standing in lines that stretched far down the street, waiting hours to take their turn. As each voter exited, he or she held a pinky up for everyone to see.

“There was a lot of pure joy happening,” she said.

The exuberance she witnessed was rare. Myanmar is a place where, under the military-controlled government, neighbors learned to be careful what they say, for fear of being reported and imprisoned. But in 2011, the military government dissolved, and political and economic reforms began. The 2015 elections gave the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, a landslide victory.

This opening up that the country is experiencing is creating a rare window of opportunity, where Myanmar’s leaders are testing whether sustainable use of natural capital can create a true green economy. The government invited World Wildlife Fund to set up shop there and do a thorough natural capital assessment, and now WWF is getting creative about sharing the results—showing how people are connected to nature—far and wide.

In addition to the assessment process itself—with its in-depth community meetings, repeated mapping and modeling runs and consultations—they’ve also launched a website, released a beautifully-designed report entitled “Natural Connections: How natural capital supports Myanmar’s people and economy,” began an Instagram campaign (#lovenature), commissioned a professional photographer, and hosted a gallery show to feature the new photographs side-by-side with natural capital maps.

The exhibit “Human.Nature” was featured on the front page of Myanmar Times weekend guide. The photographer, Minzayar, described this photo: “I was in a boat, going up the river which all these villages depend on. There were children playing and swimming in the river but this boy was just enjoying himself, floating around the water in a very peaceful way.”

“This is about communicating science,” Helsingen said. “It’s hard to get people to listen unless you can make it relate to them.”  

Globally, Myanmar is one of the least-developed countries, ranking 150 out of 187 in one study, and it’s also been ranked the 2nd most vulnerable country to negative impacts from climate change change (Global Climate Risk Index). So the stakes are high, to bring people out of poverty, but to also avoid putting them at additional risk by destroying the forests that prevent landslides, or by polluting the rivers that provide fisheries jobs to 1.5 million people.

The people of Myanmar have already experienced impacts from ad hoc development and climate. In 2015, “deforested areas were particularly hard hit by heavy rains and standing water,” reports an article about the natural capital assessment and gallery show in BurmaNetNews.

“Torrential rains dropped by Cyclone Komen led to devastating landslides that cut off critical bridges and roadways, leaving some communities completely inaccessible to aid workers,” the article says. “Coastal degradation also left parts of the Irrawaddy division inundated, destroying crops and ruining livelihoods.”

WWF staff such as NatCapper Nirmal Bhagabati worked closely with The Natural Capital Project staff based at Stanford  as well as with researchers at Columbia University to do the assessment, in partnership with Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.

The initial assessment is meant to guide policy development, support land use planning, and help identify conservation efforts to ensure that people can continue to benefit from nature.

Long before the art, the team was working hard on the science, which also entails significant outreach.

“Producing this information is about more than just running InVEST models,” said NatCap’s Lisa Mandle. “It’s is about collaboration and iteration to provide relevant natural capital information tailored to decision making, which requires a lot of work and analysis.”

Along with other NatCap staff and partner team members, Mandle made several trips to Myanmar to help with the assessment, consulting repeatedly with local decision-makers.

The Deitta gallery is in an old colonial building downtown, now the center of a burgeoning new art scene in Yangon that couldn’t have existed under the old government.

In past workshops with community representatives in remote parts of southern Myanmar, Mandle said community representatives seemed most excited by the implications of development for clean water. “When we put up the map of where we had information about where communities were located, and how they might be affected by development, they got very into that,” Mandle said. “They were also pointing out where there were communities that weren’t represented in the government dataset. Part of the reason that resonated is that they’ve already seen changes in water quality in that area from mining operations. It was easy for them to relate to.”

She appreciates WWF’s efforts to take these maps and engage a broader audience.

“I think there’s a lot of power in working with the key influential decision makers and being strategic about who we engage with,” Mandle said. “At the same time, governments should be making decisions on the basis on the needs of their citizens, so I also think it’s important to raise awareness, and communicate results to the general public, so they understand what’s at stake. They can ideally also influence the government’s decision-makers who are supposed to be acting on their behalf, to protect and manage the nature they care about.”

WWF has since visually enhanced the natural capital maps and has posted them and the underlying data to a public website , soon to be translated into Burmese. The maps are beautiful, interactive, and make the concept of “ecosystem services” easy for a layperson to understand.

WWF also hired a rising young photographer to go out into the countryside to capture images of how people interact with nature.

“To me art is a feeling,” Helsingen said. “You look at it, and you feel it. I think a lot of people are moved by art. We thought that those feelings would be difficult to convey only with the maps.”

They chose a photographer, Minzayar, who initially studied to become a doctor, but became so enamored with the power of photography to influence people, that he dedicated himself to photojournalism.

For this commission with WWF, he waded into rivers with people, hung out with fishermen, and walked trails through the jungle.

Interviewed about the project, Minzayar said:

“I was living in the city, and I didn’t always realize the value of nature. I think the project is very important, as people realize this more and more, nature can be preserved.”

The gallery show was a resounding success, Helsingen said, which she described via email:

At 9pm on a Friday night, there were still a lot of people left in the gallery. I didn’t expect people to stay for that long and I didn’t expect this incredible mix from all walks of life, all ages, both  locals and foreigners, to show up. During the exhibition, I took a step back for a moment and stood in the corner looking out over the gallery, to watch all these people talking to each other, viewing the stories being told in the photos and studying the colorful maps.


I remember thinking, “These are exactly the kinds of conversations we need to help facilitate and encourage.” In the end, perhaps we will make better decisions if we have better information about how we benefit from nature, through complex modelling and analyses. But we can’t forget about the people in that gallery, or in the rest of Yangon, or in the villages in southern Myanmar. We need to bring all of them into the conversation about how we can protect nature and secure the ways in which we benefit from it.”


Minzayar’s photos were hung side by side with natural capital maps: two ways of showing how people depend upon nature.

Hanna Helsingen’s account: Myanmar’s young culture and photography crowd showed up first and were taking photos of the photos and sharing them on social media. A mix of young and old, locals and foreigners poured in. People were drawn to the photos. It was amazing to see. It’s hard to stop looking at some of these photos. They tell so many stories at once.

Before the opening of the exhibit, WWF-Myanmar also mounted an awareness-raising campaign and competition on social media asking people to share posts about how people benefit from nature and to describe why they #lovenature.

Nearly a hundred people attended the opening of the exhibition and many more have visited during the two weeks it has been open. At the opening, there was a panel discussion featuring climate change and conservation experts as well as U Win Ko Ko Win, Chairman of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Thanlyin Township Environmental Conservation Committee. Win recently participated in the Natural Capital Symposium and is now sharing his new knowledge with colleagues.

Also present was collaborator, U Win Tun, Myanmar’s Director-General, Forest Department, Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.

“I think this kind of information can really help inform land use planning at the regional level and future work on natural capital in Myanmar should focus even more on this,” said U Win Tun. “We depend on nature and we now know better how we depend on nature. It is up to us to use this information to ensure that these incredibly valuable ecosystems can continue to support Myanmar’s people and biodiversity for generations to come.”

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


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