U Nyi Win Naing and his colleagues were sweating and pedalling for almost 50 kilometres for their health, their fun, but also for the environment. Escaping the crazy Yangon traffic and its pollution, about 150 people from Bicycle Network Myanmar were cycling from the port of Dala to the Letkhokkon Hotel on Sunday, 5th June, to honour World Environment Day. And the meaning of this day may have special relevance for Myanmar.
A fast growing economy and protection of the environment often collide usually with the environment on the losing side. Big companies and factories are opening their business and pollution laws cannot keep up with the rapid change of the economy. For example in China, according to Nature Conservancy, one-third of the country’s lakes and rivers are too toxic for humans to use. People often do not know the effects of pollution and how to prevent them. Or they just have to struggle too much for a living to care about it. So garbage and toxic waste end up in the environment, damaging not only plants and animals but also humans. Will Myanmar face the same future or will it be able to keep economic growth and environmental protection balanced?
U Nyi Win Naing founded Bicycle Network Myanmar two years ago to improve his own health by riding instead of driving a car and to offer a solution for the growing air pollution. Since 2008, the number of vehicles in Yangon has tripled, but bicycles (if it is not a rikscha) are seldom seen. U Nyi Win Naing says this is not only because of the dangerous traffic but also because sometimes the police punish people for riding a bike in the city, although there is no law written down forbidding it. But since the new government took over, his promotion of bicycle lanes for the city has been received positively, he says.
One remaining problem is the lack of awareness of the effects of too much traffic, not only in the air but also for the health of the people, he points out. A little exercise and unhealthy food are the main reasons for the high rate of cardiovascular diseases in highly developed countries. A problem that Myanmar may face in the future, too. “Riding a bike offers the solution for both problems - health and pollution”, says U Nyi Win Naing. The Facebook group of the Bicycle Network has over 5000 members at the moment. About 100 people meet regularly to go for a bike trip outside of Yangon, says U Nyi Win Naing and the number is increasing continuously.
While the Bicycle Network tries to bring environmental awareness to the growing city of Yangon, the inhabitants living in the area at Letkhokkon Beach struggle as people leave. Many young people are leaving the area to get a job in Yangon because the region doesn’t have many jobs to offer. The Letkokkon Hotel is one exception. Although liked by Backpackers and eco-tourists, the Hotel and its beach aren’t as well known as Chaungtha and Ngwe Saung Beach where the water is often muddy, especially during rainy season. Fewer tourists mean less income for the people. However, mass tourism often has a huge impact on the environment destroying great areas of nature to build up hotels and infrastructure.
Naw Pan Thinzar Myo, the Kayin ethnic affairs minister, came to the Letkokkon Hotel not only to celebrate World Environment Day but also to discuss with local people how to bring economic growth to the area. She pins her hopes on the concept of ecotourism, which means a type of low-impact tourism that aims to avoid the negative impacts of mass tourism by trying to conserve nature. She knows that not everything can be conserved and particular changes have to take place to improve the life of the inhabitants. She also realises that most important is the extension of electricity and road access for all villages, she says, “If we can promote this, the rest will follow.” But also education is a big topic as most people don’t have the same education level as those people living downtown which is needed to be successful in the tourism business. She promises that the new government will invest more in this region: “The previous government did development in an unbalanced way. Now we are trying to balance it correctly. In the future, we will spend more of the budget on this area.” There are plans to improve the quality of the beach, to build an international port and to establish shell farming businesses to create jobs, she says.
Setting up those great hopes for a better future, she leaves the hotel to visit a small island nearby that may have the potential for being a new spot for ecotourism. “We have a lot of untouched areas in Myanmar”, says Naw Pan Thinzar Myo, “We have to find hidden places for tourism. I am confident that I can promote this region.” Getting to the island requires a walk through the muddy grass and knee-high water to a small motorboat with the engine sputtering several times during the two-minute ride. On the island, there is almost no sign of human life except the remains of a pagoda that was apparently struck by lightning and some plastic garbage washed along the coast. “We have to do a lot of public awareness”’ says Naw Pan Thinzar Myo concerning the garbage. To keep its hidden treasures, Myanmar does not only have to address companies and rework the law, it will also have to promote environmental consciousness to its inhabitants. “At the moment, people don’t care about the environment and pollution. We have to start from zero.”