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March 2024 - Reforestation project update

Updated: Mar 20

Springtime in Myinmethi



Welcome to a new update on the ACRE program at Myinmethi Village, in the Southern Shan State, Myanmar. Since our last blog piece dated October 2023, the rain has ended, we’ve cleared the dry weeds so that they don’t become combustible fuel for wildfires, invested into the longevity of our equipment and, most important of all, we’ve achieved some breakthrough progress towards gaining the status of “community forest”.



Meet U Kyaw Naing: the “Pathfinder” to the Community Forest Status



ACRE: Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

U Kyaw Naing (UKN): My name is Kyaw Naing [in Burmese, “U” means Sir], I’m 58 years old and I was born and raised in Southern Myanmar in Kawmu Township. I have worked all my career in the Forest Department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC). I have 3 children who are all grown up now, sadly one died from Covid a few years back. I retired recently and I am now cooperating with ACRE on a consulting basis.


ACRE: What made you chose to work for the Forest Department when you were young?

UKN: To say the truth, I had to work from a very young age to support my family. I was the second of 6 children. But I was lucky because I've always been interested in forest and trees, so this job suited me well.


ACRE: Can you explain to us about the Community Forest (CF) land status?

UKN: In our country, land rights have long been a source of disputes and issues. To make a long story short, let’s say that 70% of the population relies directly and indirectly on the agriculture sector, but only a small portion of our farmers have a title deed for their land. It’s been a problem since colonial times.

Back in 2005, the authorities created a category of land for protecting areas to be used for forestry and for the benefit of villagers. It was the first Community Forest Instruction. But the implementation was wrong, and most areas registered under CF were indeed used by villagers to protect their own agricultural land, or sometimes the land they use to feed the cattle. There were very little forests grown or protected under the CF law…

In 2019, the Ministry issued the second CF Instructions, which is better defined and also allows villagers to create enterprises around activities derived from the CF. This is what we are trying to obtain for ACRE in Myinmethi village.


ACRE: Can you explain us the steps that lead to the CF registration?

UKN: Yes, the first step is to lodge an application . The application must be filled in by a majority of the households of the village. In Myinmethi, I collected a total of 425 household signatures!


ACRE: Why so many signatures?

UKN: It's because the more applicants, the more serious is the application considered. If you have only a minimum of applicants, the authorities may not consider the application.

But this is only the first step!

Once the application is complete, the village chief must contact the township authorities. For Myinmethi village, it's Kalaw township. The Forest Department of Kalaw then performed a "ground check" with me, a few months ago. Their report was sent to the Shan State Forest Department In Taunggyi, Shan State capital.


ACRE: From township to State authorities?

UKN: Yes, and our project in Myinmethi is small, it can be managed at State level. If it was larger, like 500 acres, I would have had to refer to Naypyidaw [the capital of Myanmar]. So after the report was in Taunggyi I followed up, and I could convince my former colleagues in the Forest Department to come to Myinmethi and perform their own ground check. This is what happened last month. Now the Forest Department is producing its report and they will lodge it to Kalaw Township Administration Office.


ACRE: So we next go from State and back to the township?

UKN: It may seem strange, but this is how our Administration works... Because with the support of Shan State Forest Department, it's then Kalaw Home Affairs department that will perform the last ground check. Home Affairs is in charge of security and police. After they give their approval, that's the final report, Kalaw's Land Department will officially certify that the land is Community Forest.


ACRE: Is the Community Forest status solid? Can it be easily reversed if someone wants to acquire the land?

UKN: Oh no! This is impossible! Once it's community Forest, nobody can touch it. Maybe this is why it's difficult to get, but it is very strong. Nobody ever heard that Community Forest land was stolen or abused. Even the most powerful tycoons would not dare.


ACRE: And what can the village do with the land after it becomes CF?

UKN: By law, the village can create Community Forest Enterprises (CFE) to carry on activities that are related to forestry. The CFE can in turn enter agreement with other entities, and this will be the opportunity for ACRE to develop the commercial aspects of the programme: from year 6 to year 10, ACRE will harvest and sell the sustainable timber produced by the pioneer trees that are currently growing.


ACRE: Oh, you know the details of our project very well it seems!

UKN: Naturally! I really like ACRE's project, and I discussed with M. Philippe [Lenain, ACRE's Director] about an other project they have in Ayeyarwady region. I'd like to continue working with ACRE after we succeed in getting the CF registration certificate for Myinmethi village.



Wildfires are back








 

On Wednesday 21st February, around 4.00 pm, our guards spotted a large wildfire that was quickly progressing toward our “Area #2”. It was exacerbated by strong winds and was progressing rapidly. The Myinmethi Project’s staff deployed themselves along the fire fence, a 3 m-wide barren earth band composed of non-combustible material that we previously installed.


But the winds were so strong that they were blowing flames above the fire fence, with cinders landing far beyond our fire fence, in the middle of Area #2. This immediately started a wildfire from within our plantation. Once the guards had realised the danger, they quickly surrounded the area and went on to extinguish the fire, but it was too late for 834 trees that were completely burnt down.


This is a worrying setback, but it must be put into perspective. At the beginning of the dry season, we had between 50,000 and 55,000 trees growing (some we replanted during last wet season). As such, the loss represents 1.5% to 1.7% of our standing stock, and given that the pits are still usable, the cost of replacement stand at roughly US$0.70 apiece.

Immediately after the event, the team went straight to meet with Myinmethi Village’s Chief, who in turn convened the hundred-household chiefs, as well as the owner of the land where the fire originated from. 



The Chief requested that the village population exercise caution when burning their vegetal waste (a tradition deeply ingrained in local custom) near the project area, requesting that they first inform our staff and work collectively to reduce the fire risk to our shared reforestation efforts.


As an additional precautionary attempt, we have installed 5 large tanks of water at locations we consider critical to wildfire spreading which would be able to provide rapid relief in the event that another wildfire occurred


Already, as I am writing this post, villagers are heeding this advice to protect their patch of forest, notifying their village chiefs of their intent to burn their waste. In response, we have swiftly mobilised our staff to help monitor and take anti-wildfire precautions accordingly. This may seem like a small victory, but to us is a significant step in that Myinmethi’s villagers are incorporating this advice into their daily lives, and a sure sign that they see ACRE as a shared endeavour between ourselves and their community. Wildfires are the single most lethal threat to the Myinmethi programme, and with the buy-in of our communities, we are able to effectively mitigate this risk.



Investing in our equipment


In tropical countries, wear and tear takes a serious toll on all tools. The more sophisticated the equipment, the more malfunctions we can expect (from electronics, contacts…) and the shorter the useful life

.

From the beginning we’ve taken this principle in consideration and opted for models that are resilient to the harsh conditions seen at our site. Our bush-cutters and the leaf-blowers we use to tame wildfires are all powered by 2-stroke engines which are easier to repair.


Intuitively, it would of course be nice to use electrically powered tools, but reforestation usually takes place in remote areas (where forest must be re-grown) and charging batteries is usually very challenging, even with solar panels, especially during the rainy season when cloud cover limits the electricity produced.


Since the beginning of the Myinmethi program’s operations (now almost 2 years back), we have not discarded a single piece of equipment. This has mostly been due to the hard work of our mechanics, and also to the proverbial ingenuity of the Burmese people who are used to living with scarcity with the capacity and willpower to repair almost anything, far beyond the conditions we would deem reasonable in more prosperous areas of the world.



Birds stands



Simple artificial bird perches, made from bamboo, placed randomly across sites, can significantly increase the “seed rain”, in other words the natural delivery of seeds, direct to the project’s site, by birds.


Entering the dry season, as an experiment, we’ve installed 15 birdstands, and they occasionally attract birds. Funnily enough, the design intended was “lost in translation” and the team in the field built stands that would be more appropriate to dry clothes than to attract our winged seed-dispersers. Fortunately, our local birds seem to be tolerating the drying racks that we’ve built as evidenced in the photo above!


This will be remedied soon with a better design, and as ever, we are taking inspiration from the Chiang Mai University's Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU).

Our plan is to install 1 birdstand for every 1,000 trees, that would represent 55 birdstands across the 3 areas covered by the Myinmethi program.


Moving the base camp



Among the readers of this blog, some of you may remember how difficult it was to recruit workers: the soil conditions were so harsh, with rocks immediately under the topsoil, that Myinmethi villagers refused to take on the jobs offered! We had to recruit workers from Thazi, a town located 80 km away down the mountains, in the so-called “Dry Zone”. For this purpose we had to build a large base camp, with dormitories, spacious enough to accommodate up to 40 workers at the peak season.


But since then, our need for workers has decreased, to more or less 10 permanent staff. Our employees now are all from Myinmethi village, and they do less brute force work, their tasks revolving around cleaning weeds, watching and fighting wildfires, or replacing dead trees. We’ve therefore scaled down our base camp and moved it closer to the entrance. It now comprises only a locked place to store equipment, and a shaded area for meals and occasional meetings.



Collecting forest species seeds and preparing for next phase (in 2026)


In the intertropical zone, the end of the dry season is the period when trees feel the need to reproduce. After receiving so much water during the rainy season, the trees are imposed a severe drought for nearly 6 months, from December to May.Extreme drought is the signal that Mother Nature has taught trees that it’s time to launch a new generation.They do this by producing flowers, and then seed pods (or fruits).


Our team has started to make an inventory of local forest species in the small Aye Yar Kan forest, which has been preserved over the decades to protect the Kalaw water reservoir.

Forest species are generally separated into 4 layers: forest floor (species that remain close to ground level), understory (from 1 m to 10 m tall), canopy (10 m to 30 m tall) and emergent (over 30 m tall).


In two years time, right before the 2026 rainy season, we must be ready to plant natural forest species under a protective canopy that will be formed by pioneer trees. Our aim is to plant a handful of each layer’s species: our plan currently calls for 5 forest floor, understory, canopy and emergent species, totalling to a reintroduction of 20 native forest species.



Replanting in “empty spots”






Before the wildfire that engulfed 834 trees on 4th March (see above), we were already mapping out “empty pockets of land” that were devoid of trees. It’s important we fill them with new trees because the principle of our operation is to create a canopy with pioneer trees, so that forest species can grow under the shade protection. Any hole in the canopy would hamper our efforts to regrow the natural forest.


Conferencing on site



Whenever possible, we are bringing visitors to the site. It’s always an occasion to explain the importance of what we’re doing, and to grow awareness toward the population living in cities, who may not know about the impact of deforestation in their own country. At other times, we can share with similar minded visitors, like Gill and Kevin from Andaman Capital, who are themselves actively engaged in mangrove reforestation who posted a very nice piece on their Linkedin blog after visiting our Myinmethi program.


At the Myinka Trek Ecolodge, the small lodge we operate in Myinka village, about 10 km from Myinmethi, the site of the Myinmethi reforestation program is one of the most popular trekking destinations.




Achieving some milestone progress on the Community Forest status


In Myanmar, weak laws and regulations about land ownership have deep repercussions throughout the whole society. How can you develop your business, or more simply in your life, if the ownership of the land you or your projects are based, is uncertain? 



Myanmar is not the only country affected by this curse, in fact all countries that transitioned from a legal system to another: neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia, post-communism, experienced similar predicaments.


The Burmese legal system is remarkable by its archaism: some actions that affect the daily life of the people, like paying stamp duties on invoices or contracts, are framed in the “1896 Stamp Duty Act”. But until recently, forming and operating a company relied on the “Burma Companies Act 1914”. Those are legal texts directly inherited from the government of the East Indian British colonies.The Company Law was updated in 2017, but land ownership, as we can expect, is a very sensitive matter and has not yet been reformed.


When we launched the Myinmethi Reforestation program with the authorities of the village of Myinmethi, we mentioned in the agreement that ACRE and the village authorities would combine their efforts to register the reforested land under the Community Forest Instructions, a 2005 regulation that was upgraded in 2019, just before the coup.


Immediately after we launched the program in April 2022, we hired a retired Land Department official with the specific mission to prepare the Community Forest (CF) registration. But after paying his salary for over a year, he did little besides explaining to us that “it is a very difficult process”.Talk, talk, that we knew already, and it is precisely the reason why we had hired him in the first place! 


Finally we replaced him and hired a new “Community Forest Advisor”, U Kyaw Naing (read his interview above) who is also a retired forest department official. But in contrast to his predecessor, we can say that he is “a man of little talk and great action”! In the last 6 months, he managed to fill in the complete CF application: for this he needed the details and the signature of more than 400 villagers who are in Myinmethi (the necessary proportion of the village’s population so that the application can qualify).


He then filed the application with the Forest Department authorities of Shan State. It isn’t aa particularly lengthy application, but it’s not an easy feat. One needs to go through plenty of petty officers, collect rubber stamps and convince local officials that the program is important. We are happy to report that finally, during the 1st week of February 2024, U Kyaw succeeded in having the Shan State Forest Department send a team to perform a “ground check” of the project, and document the borders of our land parcel. This is a major step forward, marking the official start of the  administrative process leading eventually to the community forest certification.


According to U Kyaw Naing, the next steps are the following:

  • The Taunggyi Forest Department sends the report to the Kalaw branch of the (the township of Myinmethi) Home Affairs Department.

  • The Kalaw Home Affairs Department would then perform another “ground check” and issue another report, to be sent to Kalaw’s Land Department.

  • Then Kalaw Land Department would perform a final ground check, and issue a Community Forest registration document.


The total estimated time before we get the paperwork done is 6 to 12 months…

Don’t hold your breath, you won't survive!


In addition to the solid protection this CF certification brings to the project, it would be absolutely necessary for getting access to Carbon Credits. Myinmethi program is, for the moment, too small in size to qualify for Carbon Credits certification. But once the Myinmethi Programme proves the concept, if it was scaled up, Carbon Credits would become an important source of funding for the protection of the forest: after the end of the 10-year cycle, the proceeds from Carbon Credits would be paid to the community, in our case the villagers of Myinmethi, so that they conserve the forest in the long term.


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