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‘Human. Nature.’ captures links between wildlife and livelihoods

An ethnic Karen fisherman pulls in his fishing net in the Banchaung river. This photo is part of the Human. Nature. exhibition at Rangoon's Myanmar Deitta Gallery from 20 May to 3 June, 2016. (Photo: Minzayar)

The city-folk of Rangoon are in for a visual treat this week as a new photo exhibition, Human. Nature., opens at Myanmar Deitta gallery. Produced in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the show features works by award-winning photographer Minzayar, who ventured into southeastern Burma’s wilderness to capture the links between nature and livelihoods.

Minzayar, who is known for his stunning images of the jade trade in Kachin State, spent more than a week traveling around Dawei, parts of the Andaman coast and Burma’s border with Thailand. The show will also feature never-before seen aerial images of Tenasserim Division, a richly forested and ecologically diverse region still largely untouched by development.

“The balance between development and preserving nature is very, very important,” Minzayar told DVB, because many people living in Burma’s vast rural areas rely directly on the benefits of rivers and forests. These natural sanctuaries are not only beautiful, but also provide clean water, food and protection from natural disasters for millions of people.

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

The works, on view from 20 May to 3 June, were commissioned by the WWF to supplement its “Natural Capital Project”, a long-term surveying venture that aims to inform officials, civil society and the public about where and how nature is vital to survival and economic health. The WWF has just published its findings in a report titled “Natural Connections”, available online.

“We’re really trying to make the links clear between nature and people, and how we actually benefit from these incredible ecosystems,” Hanna Helsingen, WWF’s Green Economy team leader, told DVB. She said the project uses geographic information systems (GIS) to capture a nation-wide picture of what’s left of Burma’s vast intact forests and other resources. Because of the country’s vulnerability to climate change, she said, it is critical to preserve what’s left of these areas.

“A lot more ground-truthing needs to be done,” Helsingen said, referring to the process of collecting data to confirm estimates of how much forest remains. “What we can say is that there are still large areas of intact forest, especially in the northern and the western part of Burma, based on our maps, that provide a lot of services to people.”

As last year’s flooding and landslide disaster shows, deforested areas were particularly hard hit by heavy rains and standing water. In Sagaing Division as well as Chin and Kachin states, 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. Coastal degradation also left parts of Irrawaddy division inundated, destroying crops and ruining livelihoods.

Now is the time to start preserving and restoring natural assets, Helsingen said. The statement seems all the more critical as another cyclone closes in on Arakan State, one of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.

WWF works closely with civil society and several government actors — including the forest department and the ministry of planning and finance — to determine what kind of information is useful and beneficial to communities. Human. Nature. attempts to bring this work into the public eye, if only for a few short weeks.

“I think what’s so striking bout Minzayar’s photos is that he’s been meeting with these people, who, for them the links are very clear,” Helsingen said. “They depend on this water, they depend on this food, they depend on this protection against floods and other hazards.”

Human. Nature. will be on view from 20 May to 3 June at Myanmar Deitta, located on the third floor of No. 49, 44th street, in downtown Rangoon. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free and open to all.