Changing Land Cover And Socio–economic Conditions In Bawlakhe District In The Thanlwin River Basin


By Dr. Khin Sandar Aye, MK31 Fellow

The Thanlwin River Basin is one of the four major watershed areas in Myanmar covering the Shan, Kayah, Kayin and Mon states. In Kayah State, the Thanlwin River flows from North to South and is characterized by a variety of ethnic groups living amongst an extremely bio-diverse environment. Local ethnic people are crucially dependent on this watershed area for their survival, through its importance in terms of food, water, security, fuel and income more generally. In addition, the economy of this area relies to a very large extent on agriculture, forest extraction, and mining, which are all land-intensive activities.

Timber and bamboo transported by boat on the Thanlwin

Timber and bamboo transported by boat on the Thanlwin

A fertile land cover is able to protect against soil depletion and soil erosion, reduces air, water, and soil pollution, limits sediment deposition in streams and rivers, diminishes forest depletion, and prevents losses of biodiversity. However, various extraction activities in the Thanlwin basin are beginning to degrade land cover, including logging and mining.

My research fellowship is examining land cover change in Bawlakhe District, Kayah State, Myanmar. Bawlakhe District covers a total area of 5,166, of which 4,474 is covered by forest (approximately 87%). The economy in this particular area mainly consists of forest extraction, and agriculture.

Study Area of the four Villages in Bawlakhe District (Photo credit: Topographic Map(1/50000) No. 1897-01,1897-02,1897-05,1897-06,1897-09,1897-10,1997-02,1997-03,1997-04,1997-07,1997-08,1997-11,1997-12,1997-16; Geogle Earth Image (2015))

Study Area of the four Villages in Bawlakhe District (Photo credit: Topographic Map(1/50000) No. 1897-01,1897-02,1897-05,1897-06,1897-09,1897-10,1997-02,1997-03,1997-04,1997-07,1997-08,1997-11,1997-12,1997-16; Geogle Earth Image (2015))

A comparison of satellite images from 2005 and 2015 reveals that land cover has dramatically shifted over time. Local people have over time increasingly relied on the available land cover to support their livelihoods, and it is changing. Therefore, in this research fellowship, the critical questions that I want to ask are: How closely inter-related are the regional economy and land cover changes?; To what extent are the changes in land cover impacted by land use?; In response to the changes, how has land use actually evolved?; and Have climatic conditions in the area changed, and could they have affected land cover?

Comparison of land cover changes in Bawlakhe District between 2005 and 2015.

Comparison of land cover changes in Bawlakhe District between 2005 and 2015.

Objectives of Research

Answering these questions will prove crucial in achieving the objectives of this study, which aims to identify and classify patterns of land use, to highlight alterations in living conditions, which might be caused by environmental changes, and to underline resulting socio-economic developments in the study area over the past 15 years.

Altogether, this will allow us to suggest policies and guidelines for sustainable development in the area. Hopefully, these recommendations will serve to guide local and regional decision-makers in understanding the advantages and disadvantages of land use changes, addressing forest depletion and other environmental problems, supporting and promoting the livelihoods and living conditions of local people, as well as evaluating climate-related developments and their impact on locals.

Research approach

This research’s approach focuses on recording and classifying land and its suitability for use, identifying current land use patterns, and highlighting the socio-economic and environmental conditions of local communities. Natural resources and their availability strongly affect socio-economic development in the area. Intuitively, it would make sense that land use changes in ways that maximize productivity.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to measure socio-economic and environmental changes in the Thanlwin river basin area. As a result, primary and secondary data has already been collected in the study area. Our research employs secondary data obtained from different governmental authorities such as the District Administrative Office, the Land Records Department and the Meteorology Department. Primary data is also derived from my field surveys, which combine qualitative methods to capture people’s perspectives and diversity of viewpoints on problematic matters, with quantitative methods used for statistical data collection and analysis.

Initial assessment of socio-economic conditions in Bawlakhe District

Timber extraction, agriculture and livestock breeding constitute the three main pillars of the economy in Bawlakhe District. The male population outnumbers the female population, as men originally from neighboring areas come there to work for the forest extraction and mining industries for example. However, recently the reduction in forest areas is beginning to push people away to other areas of Myanmar, or to neighboring countries altogether.

Consequently, forestland constitutes the major category of land use. The main crops cultivated there are paddy, maize, sessamum, green gram, sunflower, pulses, chili and garlic. Transportation of goods and people mainly happens via roads, but for some villages alongside the Thanlwin River it is the river itself that is their main means of transportation.

Before 2000, forest products such as honey, orchids, medicinal plants and fuel wood could easily be collected near villages in the area. At present, however, the ongoing timber extraction has depleted forest resources near the villages and nowadays fuel wood and other non-timber forerst products must be collected far from the village. This is significant given that another major local industry in this area is charcoal production, and many local people rely on it.

Forest depletion and changes of land utilization are nowadays taking place in this area. They have caused soil erosion, landslides, and losses of biodiversity. In addition, given the lack of a solid natural resource utilization and conservation plan, unsustainable land use changes have consequently led to socio-economic and environmental issues. For future development, it is crucial to systematically evaluate and analyze previous patterns and dynamics of land use. Analysis of changing historical patterns of land use in the area can serve as a sound basis for steering land use change towards an appropriate mix of forestation, human settlements, and other uses to ensure sustainable resource utilization and conservation.

Expected outcomes of research

In parallel to changes in land use patterns, economic patterns are also changing, causing local people to face socio-economic conditions that limit the available livelihood strategies in this area of the river basin. This project is aimed at encouraging local people and the authorities to concomitantly manage their land cover in a sustainable way. Expected outcomes of this research include: generating guidelines to prevent deforestation and protect the biodiversity of the study area; to prevent soil erosion, deposition and landslide; and to improve local livelihoods in the rural areas.

Edited by Siri Luther