Crimson-robed monks carrying parasols and rice bowls on the streets of Yangon now stroll past billboards for Coca-Cola (KO), Huawei (002502:CH) phones, and breezy dresses from Spanish fashion-brand Mango. Yet even as foreign brands and investors rush into Myanmar’s largest city, which is newly clogged with traffic, much of the country has yet to show clear signs of the political and economic transformation that began in 2011. Less than an hour’s drive outside Yangon, neighborhood streets are still unpaved, and 80 percent of Myanmar’s people still lack access to electricity.
As change accelerates, many in Myanmar hope the country can chart a more sustainable course of development than neighboring China, where rapid economic growth has come at great ecological cost. “Myanmar is now in a transition period—what development direction are we going to take?” asks environmentalist Myint Zaw. “Of course we need to invite investment and improve infrastructure, but we should not repeat the mistakes of other countries in accepting [the need to] ‘pollute now and clean up later.’”
While nonprofits were not allowed to register in Myanmar before 2011, they are now welcome here. In late 2013, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature established an office in Yangon. “Myanmar is like a miniature planet, with vast and varied ecosystems,” says Myanmar Conservation Program Manager Michelle Owen. The largely untouched countryside is home to at least 250 mammal species (39 of them globally threatened) and 1,000 bird species (45 of them globally threatened), as well as three of the largest pristine rivers in the world.
“Protecting the country’s natural capital is vital to sustainable long-term economic development,” says Owen. Yet at the same time, “the scale of threats has grown exponentially.” In particular, she is concerned about illegal logging and a booming illegal wildlife trade that often sends products to China.
Just 5 percent of Myanmar’s population own cell phones, and access to information in rural areas is especially slow and limited. (It takes two full days to deliver newspapers printed in Yangon to mountainous regions of western Chin state.) But Myint Zaw believes extra effort should be made to consult with local communities about large development projects, such as dams and pipelines. “If we override community knowledge and rights, it’s going to create huge problems in the long term.”