A storm that has been lurking all morning finally breaks as Win Maung steps off his puttering motor launch into ankle-deep mud that gives off a heavy stink of ammonia. It is August 2018, the middle of the monsoon season, and under the downpour, the silver-grey channels of Myanmar’s coastal wetlands fade into a murk of spray and low mist. On the bankside, spindly mangroves dip their roots into water.
When Win Maung, head of mangrove restoration projects at the Worldview International Foundation (WIF), a Norwegian nonprofit, first came to this stretch of Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady coastline in the 1990s, the area was still thickly forested. “The trees were so big I couldn’t get my arms around them,” he says. “Now…” he gestures at the sparse tree cover. There is barely a single trunk more than ten centimetres in diameter.
Mangrove forests used to stretch in an almost uninterrupted arc around the Bay of Bengal, from Bangladesh in the north to Thailand in the south, forming a natural line of defence against cyclones that batter the coast every few years. Over the past few decades they have been stripped away to be turned into charcoal, or to make space for shrimp farms, rice fields and tourist resorts. In Myanmar alone, a million hectares of mangroves have been lost since 1980.