In the town of Kyu Chaung, we remove our shoes at a gate guarded by a pair of ornate dragons and enter the grounds of a small monastery. An attendant ushers us into a spacious, sparsely appointed room, where we kneel on mats opposite two middle-aged monks draped in saffron robes. Dishes of shrimp, fried rice cakes and a plate of ground nuts mixed with pickled leaves, called laphet, are brought forth. The monks beckon us to eat.
“I am pleased with our president and what he is doing for the development of the country,” one of them says. He’s also pleased with a nationwide government campaign to raise environmental awareness. “The climate depends on keeping our forests healthy. It’s our responsibility as monks to help raise the consciousness of our followers.” To that end, the monastery recently organized villagers to plant 300 trees. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, the estimated area of dense forest cover in the country dropped from more than 45% to less than 20%. WWF estimates that up to a third of the remaining woodlands could be lost in the next 20 years without the imposition of new controls, which are due to take effect in the coming months.
Still, in town after town, we come across newly erected billboards exhorting citizens to care for the environment. “Save a tree, save a life,” reads one sign. “Help your environment— take care of the forest,” reads another. “To have a green society, everyone should plant trees,” proclaims a third. The message seems to be taking hold, especially among Myanmar’s younger generation, where it will count most in the years ahead.
In the town of Baung De, throngs of children stream out of the yard of the local middle school. Amid the shrill, excited cries of the students, elderly rickshaw driver U San Shwe sits stoically on his rig, waiting to take his two granddaughters home.
“It’s very important not to destroy the forest,” says the older of the two girls, sixth grader Nan Wai Wai Hlaing, with a shy smile. Her grandfather beams proudly. “I want them to get a good education,” he says, “so they can become teachers themselves and help the village to develop.”