In 2008 Cyclone Nargis swept in over the Bay of Bengal and across the Irrawaddy delta, killing 130,000 people and displacing many more. Nothing broke the power of the cyclone as it hit the coast; the destruction of mangroves had left Myanmar’s coastline exposed to the devastating force of the tropical storm.
Mangroves are a delta’s natural defence against nature’s fury, absorbing the onslaught of cyclones, winds, floods and tidal surges. The dense tangle of roots trap silt and stabilise the coast, preventing erosion. The trees also absorb five times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than rainforests, which means they play a huge role in mitigating global climate change.
A new art exhibition in Yangon shows the strange beauty of these complex ecosystems and the important functions the mangrove forests play in the wider ecosystem.
Expansion of agriculture, shrimp farming, coastal development and rising sea levels have all contributed to mangrove deforestation worldwide.
“Only 16% of mangroves in Myanmar’s delta remain,” says British painter Kate Bowen. It was time spent in the Ma Gyi mangrove conservation park that inspired her to paint the huge canvasses on display in Gallery 65.
2.5 million trees have been replanted in the Ma Gyi park with the support of Worldview International Foundation in an area where the mangroves covering 1,800 acres had been destroyed. The good news is the trees regenerate quickly, recolonizing a denuded island in ten to fifteen years.
Myanmar artist Htein Lin’s installation “Mangrave” is a charcoal sculpture of a tree. The production of charcoal is one of the primary causes of mangrove decline.
“Bogale charcoal made from mangroves is famous for its quality. Production of this charcoal in the delta was encouraged in the Ne Win era to fuel kitchens in Yangon. It led to widespread mangrove deforestation,” he told local media.
Since Myanmar’s opening up in 2011 new threats have emerged in the form of industrial agricultural and large scale plantations.
Norwegian artist Gunnlaug Bina Kuloy’s macro videos and sound installations capture the teaming life of small creatures hidden in the tidal forests and their role in the bigger ecosystem. Crabs that dig holes in the mud, for example, provide oxygen to mangrove roots keeping the forests alive.
[This video is an extract from Gunnlaug Bina Kuloy’s exhibit]
Experts warn that if current trends continue Myanmar’s mangroves could disappear completely in the next few decades.
Mangroves across South Asia face a similar fate. The Sundarbans that straddle Bangladesh and India are now threatened by logging and shrimp farming, coal factories, shipping, rising sea levels and dwindling fresh water from the Ganga River.
The densely populated deltas around the Bay of Bengal are sinking because of a set of problems including, the loss of mangroves, the reduction of river flow and silt held behind dams upstream. At the same time sea levels are rising – as well as rising in temperature.
“Locals [in the Irrawaddy delta] are really concerned about the rise in sea temperature, which is much warmer than last year,” says Kuloy, which will affect fish and marine life. “People aren’t aware of the basic functions of mangroves – protection from cyclones, coastal erosion and the health of the ocean. I hope to raise their curiosity.”
Mangroves: The Forests of the Tide is showing in Gallery 65 in Yangon until the 5 December.