Myanmar: Mangrove Forests in the Ayeyarwady Delta



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • South-eastern Asia


  • Myanmar (Ayeyarwady Delta)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of the area and its mangrove forests.


  • Mangroves, forestry, restoration, disaster risk reduction


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

Natural and Social Background

[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

A mangrove ecosystem is a community of forests that grow in the intertidal environment, which is the transition area between the land and the sea (Ono, 2007). In general, plants cannot grow in saline water conditions, but mangroves can grow in this intertidal environment since they can discharge salt using various methods such as accumulating salt in particular leaves and shedding them to discharge the salt if the amount of accumulated salt exceeds a certain limit, the filtering of salt by the roots, and allowing salt to be evaporated after passing through salt glands on the surface of the leaves (Sashida, 2006). It is confirmed that mangrove forests are distributed in 123 countries worldwide (Spalding et al., 2010). In particular, mangrove forests have developed in Asian regions such as India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, representing a little less than 46% of the total mangrove forest area of the world (Nay, 2004).

The Ayeyarwady delta has an area of 33,670 km2 (JICA, 2005), and its coastline extends for about 469 km. The mangrove forests extending over the delta area constitute the largest of their kind in Myanmar, accounting for 46.4% of the total mangrove forests in the country (Khin, 2008). Twenty-nine species of mangrove trees have been confirmed to exist in the Ayeyarwady delta, forming the most complicated mangrove system in Asia (Nay, 2002). In particular, Heritiera fomes is widespread and dominant, and other species that exist here include Excoecaria agallocha, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza, Cynometra ramiflora, Ceriops decandra, and Avicennia officinalis (Ono, 2007). According to Köppen’s climatic classification, the Ayeyarwady delta belongs to the tropical monsoon climate, in which three distinct seasons, the rainy season (mid-May to mid-October), the winter season (mid- October to mid-February) and the dry season (mid-February to mid-May), are recognized with a very large difference in precipitation between the rainy and the dry seasons (JICA, 2005; Ono, 2007). The delta has tidal water channels of many rivers, large and small, which branch off from the Ayeyarwady and is often flooded due to tidal effects and rainfall during the rainy season. The amount of sediment discharge in the Ayeyarwady is enormous compared to other large rivers in Southeast Asia. With this sediment, sand banks called beach ridges have formed at the end of the delta, which geographically characterizes the mangrove area in the coastal region (Ono, 2007).

The southern area of Myanmar, including the Ayeyarwady delta, started to be colonized by the British in 1852, and due to the declaration of land nationalization, the ownership of all land came to belong to the state with all forests and forest products considered to be owned by the state. Since then, there has been no change in the fundamental framework of this system, and even today no land is privately owned by individuals.

Use of Mangrove Forest Ecosystesm in Ayeyarwady Delta

Land use

Mangrove forests have been provided farmers with firewood, timber, medicinal herbs, and other forestry products, which are used for particular purposes. They have also served as the breeding area for fish and shellfish. Thus people in Ayerarwa dy Delta have depended on the mangrove ecosystems for many things besides fuel and food. The major occupation of the people living in the delta varies according to the way they occupy or hold the land. Those who own land are engaged mainly in agriculture, and in particular, rice cultivation is flourishing. In general, farmers cultivate rice once a year using rain during the monsoon season. As another form of land use, home gardens play an important role. Home gardens are made up of useful trees that are the mixture of existing varieties and cashable tree crops, and are used mainly for self-sufficiency. They are managed extensively. Many large-scale farmers produce coconut palms and betel palms that are cashable tree crops. Home gardens provide a number of other plant resources for food and herbal medicines or for poisons.

On the other hand, small farmers who have only narrow tracts of land and seasonal workers who have no land work under large-scale farmers as migratory laborers during the busy seasons, earning a wage of 400-500 kyat a day (about $0.40-0.50 based on the exchange rate of 2005). In addition, they tend to depend on fisheries such as the catching of crabs and shrimps for a living, and rely on resources in the mangrove forests for many aspects such as fuel and food. Most of the small farmers and seasonal workers are poor because they have difficulty making a living. If the poverty line is 100,000 kyat per household per year as defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the percentage of poor families in the Kadonkani and Pyindaye reserved forests in 2002 was extremely high at 59.6% and 54.5%, respectively (JICA, 2005).

Benefits of Mangrove Forests

In addition to the direct value of the resources, mangrove forests provide the habitat for macaques (genus Macaca), which are indigenous to mangroves, as well as for otters, crocodiles, many species of birds and insects, and so forth, contributing greatly to the preservation of biodiversity (JICA, 2005; JICA, 2006). The other many indirect benefits include erosion and flood control, mitigation of the effects of global warming, and functioning as a tree barrier to protect the shoreline from winds and tides. When the earthquake that occurred off Sumatra in December 2004 caused a massive tsunami, for example, damage from the tidal waves was mitigated in coastal areas where mangrove forests existed since they reduced the speed of the tsunami and prevented driftage from passing through them, thus weakening the destructive power of the tsunami (Sashida, 2006). According to the investigation conducted in Bogalay in the administrative division of Ayeyarwady, which received the most damage from Cyclone Nargis in 2008, in areas more than 10 km from the route of the cyclone the mortality rate of residents in settlements near mangrove forests and secondary forests was notably lower than that in settlements in the non-forest areas. A hearing investigation revealed that many residents who survived the cyclone avoided being swept away by the high waves by holding onto trees in the forests. This showed that mangrove forests have the effect of reducing damage from high waves (Ya, 2011).

Land Use in the Reserved Forests

Settlement areas in the Ayeyarwady delta are managed by the General Administration Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The resident’s right to hold land has been established but is subject to state intervention. Land revenue is collected annually from residents who hold land in the settlement area (Ono, 2007). Forest areas are managed by the Forest Department. In Myanmar, land development is prohibited in the reserved forests stipulated by the forest act, but as a result of illegal development, there is housing land, paddy fields, home gardens, plantations, and other property even in the reserved forests. The plantation here is a local one managed by land owners who employ local seasonal laborers, etc and not typical large-scale plantation which depends on a cheap labor force that started under the colonial system. The Ayeyarwady delta has 13 reserved forests of which eleven include mangroves. The Meinmahla, Kyakankwin Pyauk, Kadonkani, Pyindaye, and Pyinalan reserved forests include approximately 97,000 hectares of paddy fields, which occupy 47% of the area of the five forests, larger than the area of mangrove forests, which occupy an area of 90,386 ha (44% share) (JICA, 2005).The occupants of these properties maintain their illegal ownership by paying a small penalty to the Forest Department each year (Ono, 2007). The “penalty” includes money that is collected without any legal basis by public officers from the illegal occupants of property. The fact that some residents are not unable to distinguish the penalty from land revenues in the settlement areas is spurring the illegal ownership of reserved forests, which is considered to be a problem for their management. Figure 1 shows the actual condition of the land use in the township of Bogalay in the administrative division of Ayeyarwady. In this area, development has progressed in the reserved forests, and there are villages built on privately occupied land. There are also community forests that have been developed according to the Community Forestry Instructions (as described later).

Figure 1. The Actual Condition of the Land Systems and Land Use in the Township of Bogalay in the Administrative Division of Ayeyarwady (Source: Ono, 2007 modified) (Amount of the penalty is as of 2007, investigation by Ono)

Community Forestry

In 1995, the Forest Department issued Community Forestry Instructions to allow local residents to control forests, promoting the implementation of community forestry.

User groups engaged in community forestry activities have acquired the right to use community forests for 30 years under the Forest Department’s licensing system. They are allowed to collect products from their community forests, use them, and sell them in their community. Furthermore, since they also have the right to own produce incidental to community forests such as crabs and shrimps, they can make a profit by continuously producing them (JICA, 2005). Local residents are allowed to develop community forests in the reserved forests and other areas. User groups organized by local residents draw up plans to manage activities in their community forests and apply to the Forest Department for approval. Upon receipt of the applications, the Forest Department examines the applications, and based on the results of these examinations, it grants the user groups a 30-year lease and usufructuary rights over community forests. One characteristic of community forestry is that the Forest Department actively allows user groups to apply such plans not only to community forestry activities, but also to newly developed forests and to those remaining natural forests that local residents have historically used. The Forest Department’s responsibility as it is related to community forestry activities is to support and manage such activities carried out by the user groups. User groups carry out community forestry activities in accordance with the management plans they work out on their own and that the Forest Department authorizes (JICA, 2005).

Challenges and Responses

Records from 1924 indicate that in the southern part of the Ayeyarwady delta, there were 506,000 ha of mangrove forests in the area that covered an area of 200 km by 60 km. The surveys conducted from 1998 to 1999 show, however, that these mangrove forests decreased to 87,000 ha. This means that 83% of the mangrove forests disappeared in 75 years (Mochizuki, 2002). In 1962, a military dictatorship was established. After it adopted a national isolation policy, the economy stagnated in urban areas including the capital of Yangon, and electricity and oil fuel became scarce, causing the nation to depend more on firewood and charcoal for cooking fuel. In addition, the growth in the population further increased the demand for fuel, prompting the felling of mangrove forests that supplied the firewood for commercial purposes. From 1971 to 1993, the Ayeyarwady delta provided 85% of the charcoal consumed in the capital city of Yangon (JICA, 2005). Moreover, as the population grew, mangrove forests were turned into paddy fields as a food production center in accordance with the government’s policy. As described above, the indiscriminate felling of mangrove forests and the development of paddy fields due to the rapid increase of the demand in urban areas from the 1970s to the 1980s devastated the forests throughout the Ayeyarwady delta. The deterioration in the remaining mangrove forests is also under way as typified by changes in the composition of species such as a decrease in the number of useful species of mangrove and the transition of mangrove forests into tangles of various kinds of trees, as well as by a decline in the size of the mangrove trees (Ono, 2007).

The destruction of mangrove forests in recent years is largely attributed to the construction of culture ponds for shrimp farming. After the government announced its open economic policy in 1990, many businesses constructed culture ponds in the delta to produce shrimp and fish for export to the world market. In 2004, according to materials provide by the Forest Department, 1,200 ha of mangrove forests in the Ayeyarwady delta were turned into shrimp culture ponds. The dams and embankments built around shrimp culture ponds prevent currents from flowing into and out of the delta, and as a result, the rise in the concentration of salt in the water affects the growth of many forms of life (Khin, 2008).

The sediment discharge of the Ayeyarwady has decreased due to human activities such as land development in inland areas outside the delta region, which has caused erosion around the forward edge of coastal areas in the delta. Moreover, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 which affected the Ayeyarwady and Yangon administrative divisions, caused the worst damage in the history of Myanmar. The number of deaths and missing people reached nearly 140,000 due to the high waves and the heavy storm (Ya, 2011) and approximately 94% of all buildings collapsed or were heavily damaged. It also destroyed about 14,000 ha of mangrove forests and many plantations (Woo, 2008). The destruction of mangrove forests brought a large amount of sand onto the tidal flats and changed various habitats in the coastal area, resulting in adverse effects on biodiversity. In addition, seawater flowed into paddy fields and tributaries of the Ayeyarwady were polluted with high-concentrations of bacteria in the delta lowlands (Woo, 2008).

In 1993, in order to cope with the depletion of the mangrove forests, the Peace and Development Committee of the administrative division of Ayeyarwady prohibited the felling of any of the species of mangrove in the administrative division except the felling of trees after afforestation and forest nurturing, the construction of charcoal kilns, and charcoal making. Even today, charcoal production is totally prohibited in the delta, but charcoal can be produced under license using wood generated by the felling of trees in afforested areas (JICA, 2005).

The restoration of mangrove forests became an issue to be addressed at the national level, and in early 1980, the Forest Department launched a directly managed afforestation project. In general, within the area of the activities of the villagers, the Department is promoting the restoration of mangrove forests by developing new forest areas through community forestry activities based on the Community Forestry Instructions mentioned in Section (2), and in areas distant from the villages, it is directly planting mangrove trees. The directly managed afforestation began on a scale of 75 acres a year in the 1980s, and several years later, the scale was expanded to 750 acres a year. However, nearly half of the areas afforested by the Forest Department were destroyed by later invasions: the development of agricultural land, the construction of culture ponds, and the selection of unsuitable species that killed many of the mangroves, leaving the mangrove forests in the delta devastated (JICA, 2006). With financial support from the Action for Mangrove Reforestation (ACTMANG), an NGO engaged in mangrove reforestation in Japan based on financial support from Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co., Ltd., the Forest Resource and Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), a local NGO, initiated a five-year mangrove afforestation project in the Pyindaye reserved forests in 1999. This project takes an integrated approach that encompasses mangrove afforestation based on the Community Forestry Instructions and poverty reduction aimed at improving the living standards of members of community forestry user groups (Photo 1; FREDA, n.d.).

In 2007, JICA launched a five-year project (after the impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, it was postponed one year to become a six-year project) to plan the comprehensive management of mangroves in the Ayeyarwady delta by involving local residents. The overall goal of the project is to ensure the sustainable management and use of mangrove forests and to reduce the poverty of local residents. Up to now, the project have provided the staffs of the Forest Department with a wide range of training programmes and formulated afforestation plans needed to systematize mangrove afforestation technology and conducted tests based on such plans. Since FY2011, they have worked to develop technical guidelines and manuals based on the knowledge they have accumulated in the past.

As stated above, efforts have been to ensure the recovery of the mangrove forests through plantation projects at various levels. However, policies concerning the development of mangrove forests are under a chaotic situation. Land-use plans and policies concerning reserved forests are not unified and shrimp farms have been developed continuously.

Photo 1. Community forest developed collaboratively by local residents and NGO (Photo: Kunio Suzuki)


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