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October 2023 - Reforestation project update

Rainy season Update

Welcome to a new update on the ACRE program at Myinmethi Village, in the Southern Shan State, Myanmar. Since our last blog piece in May, we’ve kept ourselves busy cleaning our place, strengthening our “baby trees” and replacing those that we lost to diseases, insects and fire during the last dry season.

Deep weed cleaning

This year, the rainy season started at the end of May, which was early compared to what we had anticipated based on historical records. In fact, we had an even earlier warning, when cyclone Mocha formed over the Bay of Bengal and hit the coast of Myanmar on 14 May in the north of Rakhine State, in Sittwe. Generating winds in excess of 250 km/h, the natural disaster killed 145 people and devastated the Rakhine capital. Fortunately for our program, the mountains of the Shan State are located 455 km (258 miles) from the stricken location, and the event manifested as anomalously high rainfall at our site.

Weeds are the first issue we attend to as soon as the rains arrive. After only a few weeks, they grow higher than our young seedlings, and they represent a form of competition that is detrimental to the young trees. Furthermore, as we’ll see below, we had decided to apply a generous amount of fertilisers to our seedlings. It was thus necessary to not only cut the wild grass, but also scratch the earth around each and every seedling. The plant would thus be ready to absorb its yearly dose of fertiliser.

Applying fertiliser

As already explained in our last report, prior to the rainy season, we had come to the

conclusion that we’d better apply some fertiliser: the conditions of soil degradation in the environment of Myinmethi village are such that the poor seedlings would struggle to reach the required height and form the expected canopy after four years of growth

We first determined the type and quantity of fertiliser necessary: ideally we’d have chosen NPK 12-12-12, which is the type recommended by the Chiang Mai University's Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU-CMU). But this type was not available around the village, so we procured the next best type: 15-15-15.

Last year, all of our seedlings were planted in pit-holes that were 1 ft wide in diameter and 2 ft deep. The seedlings had developed their root system within the confines of that pit, and as a consequence it’s important to spread the grains of fertiliser inside the diameter of the pit. We apply 70 grams of pellets per tree, which dissolves in the ground with the rains.

The effect of fertilisers will take some time to show, especially in the most degraded areas. But for the areas where soil conditions are more amenable to growth, usually near the access road, it is already spectacular: Some Acrocapus seedlings are already over 6 ft (1.84 m) tall (see picture)!

In all, we purchased 60 bags of fertiliser. Each bag weighed 50 kg, at a cost of 150,000 Kyat (US$43). The cost of fertilising came at 9,000,000 Kyat, which is roughly US$2,572.

Replacing dead trees

As explained during our last update, at the end of the first dry season, we had lost a total of 5,100 seedlings out of the 55,000 initially planted (9.2%).

80% of the loss was due to insects and diseases, while the remainder succumbed to wildfires. While the performance is acceptable according to FORRU-CMU’s guidance, given the extreme soil degradation of Myinmethi’s site, we had to replace them to protect the future of the native species we had planned to substitute for our pioneers.

To do this, we grew our own replacement seedlings near our basecamp, but with our limited staff on employment, we couldn’t produce enough. We resorted to a two-prong approach: we planted 2,914 from our own nursery among which 300 Bauhinia variegata,120 Albizia lebbeck, 400 Trema orientalis, 250 Cassia fistula, 544 Erythrina, 800 Dipteryx, and 500 Melia. We also purchased 3,000 more seedlings (from a government nursery) at a cost of US$300 (including US$50 for transportation). They are: 1,100 Acacia Mangium, 1,100 Parkia, 150 Melia, 200 Acrocarpus, and 450 Pterocarpus. The process is a relatively efficient one: we take advantage of the pit-holes that we dug last year, placing a handful of fertilisers at a depth of 1 ft under the surface.

Maintenance of equipment

Most of the equipment used 18 months ago at the onset of the project is still perfectly functional. In the tropical conditions of Southern Shan State, this testifies to how rigorous our maintenance routine is.

In this season, we pay particular attention to our fleet of brush-cutters. The 2-stroke engines need to be frequently overhauled, bearings need to be changed, and the rotating blade must be sharpened almost every day.

Working towards Community Forest status to mitigate the risk of land grabbing

If you remember, we started the project based on a simple private agreement signed between the Village of Myinmethi and our company, ACRE Myanmar. In the agreement, it is mentioned that the Village will produce its best efforts to have the planted areas transformed into “Community Forest” land. “Community Forest” (CF) is a land status that is defined by the Community Forest Instruction, a law that was promulgated in 2005 and revised in 2019. Under a CF designation, the land is protected and can be used only for forestry to the benefit of the village’s community.

The problem is that, like so many things in Myanmar, clear specifications for a “CF” on paper mask the complex processes required to navigate the bureaucracy needed to obtain this. The process is governed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, headquartered in Naypyidaw, the capital; and it is implemented with local Forest Department officers, who struggle to bridge the needs of the local communities with the multiple hierarchical echelons leading to the decision makers.

Since the beginning of the Myinmethi project early 2022, we have been employing U Myint Zaw, a retired Forest Department Officer, to work with the village authorities. They have mostly completed the first administrative steps leading to applying for a CF designation.

Sadly, U Myint Zaw’s health has been degrading lately, and he had to tender his resignation.

Obtaining legal protections, with the registration of our project under the Community Forest land status, becomes more and more important by the day. Since we started the programme, Kalaw is now seen as the most attractive tourist destination in the country, and the price of land around Kalaw has skyrocketed. The pressure is mounting on the borders of our project, as since the beginning, 5 villagers have placed a “claim” on an area we had planted on: see the three areas, with the land that was taken from the project after we had planted it.

To find a suitable replacement for U Myint Zaw, we met with a retired official of the Forest Department in Naypyidaw. He is confident that he has the contacts and expertise to successfully register ACRE Myinmethi for a Community Forest application,estimating we could obtain the registration within 6 to 12 months, under a budget covering his services and costs, representing 10,000,000 Kyat (US$2,860).

Meet Aung Kyaw Htoo: the caretaker of Area #1

The trees planted in the Area #1 (see map) have always been nicer, healthier and taller than average. It has become obvious, last time I visited the place, so I asked the question: “Is there a specific reason why the trees grow better here than in Areas #2 or #3?” The answer surprised me: Area #1 has been followed exclusively by the same villager, U Aung Kyaw Htoo, who has been employed by the project since day 1. Other areas are followed by staff who work for a few months in a row at most, and then they take another job, or look after their crops.

We decided to interview Aung Kyaw Htoo:

ACRE: Hello, can you please introduce yourself?

Aung Kyaw Htoo [AKT]: My name is Aung Kyaw Htoo, I’m 44 years old. I was born in Myinmethi village, and I’ve always lived here. I’m married, I have a son and a daughter.

ACRE: How did you find this job?

AKT: I’m the Leader of the 10-houses Group of the North quarter of Myinmethi, and last year I was present when the Village Chief called for a meeting to discuss the ACRE project. I went to the meeting, like all other Leaders. When I heard it was about planting trees, I was immediately interested. Then I heard that ACRE was hiring workers, so I applied. It was May 2022, I think. Since then, I have been constantly working in the Area #1.

ACRE: Do you like trees?

AKT: Yes, I’ve always loved trees. Myinmethi completely changed, I remember before I got married 20 years ago, there were lots of forests around our village. But now there’s no forest, and barely any trees left, even. And there is no more water in the ground. Now we need to pump water from streams that are 2 miles [3.7 km] away from our land. And we must pay a lot for electricity or gasoline. Last year, soldiers came and arrested our Chief because we couldn’t pay the electricity bill of the village, it was 30,000,000 Kyat (at the time a little over US$10,000). Life was easier before…

ACRE: Can you describe what are your priorities when working in the reforestation program?

AKT: My first priority, at all times, is to keep the cows and buffalos out of our plantation area! They can come from any direction, and in no time they eat our trees and they crush them!

During this rainy season, I focused on replacing the trees that we had lost. Over the winter, I shall be cleaning all the weeds, because they represent the combustible for the fire. And during the dry season, I’ll be watching for wildfires.

Sometimes I must convince the cowboys to stay away with their cattle by offering them some betel nuts to chew, or give them cigarettes!

ACRE: How do you see this Area #1 in a few years time?

AKT: Nowadays, this area is desolate, there are only cows and buffalos. But once the trees start to form a forest, I think villagers will gather around here… My idea would be to open a shop, maybe a small restaurant, so I could keep my trees in sight while making some money!

In the morning, before I come to work, when I stop in the teashop, I always talk with my friends about our project. I explain them how beneficial this is for our village. But so far, only a few of them understand. I think we should do more to raise the awareness of the villagers.

Having lost the support of The Nature Conservancy: we need more investors…

Last May, we ended our report writing that we expected to receive the financial support of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) by July. Sadly, early June came the bad news: the headquarter of TNC in New York decided to suspend all activities in Myanmar. TNC mentioned that the risk is too high for them, given the sanctions that are accumulating against the military dictatorship that has been ruling since the coup of February 2021.

This is a serious drawback for ACRE, as TNC had not only committed to fund the project with US$35,000, but their support to ACRE would have come through RECOFTC, an international NGO that promotes community forestry in 7 Asian countries. Both partnerships were immensely valuable to our programme.

We are now in need of financing to support our operations in the wake of this news. We call upon our faithful and growing community to disseminate the news and help us find more support. Every contribution helps.

Again, thank you all for your support, and we'll be back with more updates in the new year!

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