A white Buddha statue dominates the hall of a monastery in southern Burma where 50 men and a handful of women were gathered to hear Myint Zaw, a passionate environmentalist and crusader against the dangers of big dams, receding forests, and disappearing mangroves. It was the wet season. Squalls of rain pounded the rich red earth outside, and the lush green leaves of banana and mango trees, shiny with water, brushed up against the open windows.
Despite the tight rule of Burma’s military regime, whose power has only recently diminished, Myint Zaw has galvanized public opinion to stop the construction of the Myitsone Dam, more than a thousand miles to the north. The dam was poised to irrevocably alter the flow of the mighty Irrawaddy River, the 1,350-mile vital artery of the country. Even here in the delta region in the south, where the river empties into the sea, the livelihoods of farmers were at risk. The Chinese operators of the dam had planned to control the flow of the river, allowing water to surge at times and recede at others, making subsistence farming more unpredictable than it already is.
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Myint Zaw and his supporters triumphed against the Burmese junta and its main benefactor, China, two years ago. But he takes little for granted. On a recent morning, he drove over rutted dirt roads which traverse water-logged fields to remind his audience that, while the government suspended the dam, the fight to save Burma’s environment is far from over. “Seventy percent of the people in Myanmar live in rural areas,” he said as he prepared to address the neatly dressed village administrators, teachers, and farmers seated at long tables. “They rely on the environment for their business. We’re interested in the environment not only for aesthetic reasons but for the well-being of the people.”
Myint Zaw, 38, is a journalist and social organizer whose base is a modest book-crammed apartment in a dilapidated building with intermittent power in downtown Rangoon, where he works and sleeps (on a rattan mat) in a single room. Three assistants work in another room, laptops on every desk. But computers and the Internet are a recent phenomenon in Burma. When Myint Zaw began the effort to stop the Myitsone Dam in 2009, it was a surreptitious, guerrilla approach against a government that ruled Burma with an iron fist. E-mail barely existed, letters were intercepted and read, visitors to apartment buildings and hotels were monitored. Censors scrutinized the handful of government newspapers. The jails were brimming with political prisoners. Against this monolithic structure that tolerated no dissent, Myint Zaw chipped away.
Born into a poor delta family, he was well placed to spearhead opposition to the dam, harnessing the anti-government sentiment that began mounting in 2008, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. (The cyclone swept through the delta region, killing more than 130,000 people, many of them impoverished farmers dependent on the waters of the Irrawaddy. The military regime did little to rescue victims or to rebuild after the devastation.) Unlike many Burmese activists, who fled abroad during the rule of the junta, Myint Zaw chose to stick it out. When he was ready to go to university in the mid-1990s, the military regime, fearful of student protests, closed down the campuses. Like many at the time, he taught himself and began to write about the environment. He studied at a university in Thailand in the mid-2000s, and after a year at the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley (from 2007 to 2008), he headed back to Rangoon. Staying close to his country, he worked inside the system, maneuvering around it, finding the cracks and exploiting them.
His early tactics to raise awareness about Burma’s environmental problems—the rampant deforestation, the wanton trafficking of wildlife to China—seem basic but were revolutionary in Burma’s repressive atmosphere. In 2009, for instance, he organized a benign-sounding event for World Water Day at a Rangoon hotel. Under the auspices of the Ju Foundation—a nonprofit whose board members included Ju, a well-known female novelist, and Myint Zaw—invitations were issued door-to-door for what was billed as an exhibit about global water problems. After the cyclone fiasco, anything to do with water had resonance. “We called it an exhibit to get around the military regime’s ban on meetings,” he said. “It was actually a small forum, but we couldn’t say that.” They invited a Burmese rock star, and 300 people showed up—the core of a new movement.
By 2010, word had leaked out about plans for the construction of the Myitsone Dam at the very spot where two rivers tumble down the Himalayas and converge to form the Irrawaddy. For the Burmese, the Irrawaddy is not only a critical transportation system, a rich supplier of fish, and a provider of essential irrigation; it is also a symbol of the nation and a cultural treasure not to be tampered with. Particularly galling was the fact that a Chinese power company, China Power Investment Corporation, would be routing 90 percent of the hydropower to China.
“We began to talk about how dangerous this was for the ecology of the river,” Myint Zaw said. He decided that quiet discussions among like-minded activists were insufficient, so he went to Beijing on a surreptitious trip. Meeting with the power company building the dam was out of the question, but influencing Chinese academics who could set the tone for debate was doable. While there, he invited Chinese experts to the dam site to hear the irate farmers who had been forced off their land and into resettlement villages. Soon, articles began appearing in China that questioned the project.
At home, Myint Zaw intensified the pressure by going to the person the junta most feared: Aung San Suu Kyi. A few months after her release from house arrest, he visited the opposition leader to enlist her support, and almost immediately she began speaking at rallies about the Irrawaddy as the symbol of Burma’s nationhood. Around the same time, Myint Zaw mounted another exhibition in Rangoon titled “Art of Watershed,” showing the devastating consequences of the dam on the Irrawaddy River. When officials from the Ministry of Forestry showed up, Myint Zaw knew that his campaign was gaining traction. At a literary evening called “Save the Irrawaddy,” 500 people cheered as he vowed that the river must not be touched.
In a momentous decision that got the world’s attention, the new president, Thein Sein, a former general, announced the suspension of the project in September 2011. China, Burma’s biggest investor, was shocked. For the first time, the government in Burma had listened to its citizens. It was an electric moment for the quiet campaigner: His movement had had an impact.
The victory was hailed abroad. Carl Middleton, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, said Myint Zaw had taken “brave, creative, and extremely strategic actions.” The stunning turnaround reflected, he said, a “tireless and selfless effort, without which such remarkable campaigns cannot take off, let alone succeed.”
The Burmese writer Ko Tar, who traveled with Myint Zaw around the country and abroad, said simply: “It was teamwork, involving many people. But the major initiative is his.”
The power of the military has eroded in Burma, but the threat of the dam has not. Despite the suspension, China Power Investment Corporation vows to build. Myint Zaw stays vigilant, making sure the public is kept informed about the precarious state of the environment. In July, he organized a multimedia show at Gallery 65 in Rangoon. Titled “Vanishing Treasures of Myanmar,” the exhibition highlighted the destruction of much of Burma’s old-growth forests—it is estimated that less than 50 percent remain. The giant teak trees that lured the traders of the British Empire in the nineteenth century have almost all disappeared. Only about 150 striped Bengal tigers are left. A mere 3,000 elephants, once common in the forests, survive. Rare monkeys, snakes, and even birds and their nests are spirited over the border into China to feed its booming wildlife trade.
These days, Myint Zaw worries not only about the environment but also about the transition to democracy. The two are intertwined, he says. “If the transition is not smooth, we won’t have the institutions to protect the environment.”
Grace Ge Gabriel, China
Nominated by: International Fund for Animal Welfare
China’s demand for wildlife products—as traditional medicine, foodstuffs, and exotic collectibles—is leading to rampant growth of the illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction, and potential species extinction.
In 1996, Chinese-born Grace Ge Gabriel, 50, was a new U.S. citizen with a job as a TV reporter in Utah. Then she did a story about farms in China where Asiatic black bears were held in tiny cages while their bile was drained to be sold as medicine. Moved by the plight of these animals, Gabriel returned to China to open an office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Hers was the first—and today is still the only—international animal welfare organization working inside China. Since then, Gabriel has convinced Baidu, China’s largest search engine, to block Web sites that allow the sale of wildlife products such as tiger bone, bear bile, and elephant ivory so they don’t appear in search results, and is working with the Kenyan embassy in Beijing on a nationwide campaign to discourage Chinese travelers from buying ivory in Africa. “China needs more people who understand the suffering of animals,” she said. And she isn’t trying to educate just Chinese consumers: Gabriel also successfully petitioned the U.S. government to list Tibetan antelopes—once killed by the tens of thousands to make shahtoosh shawls—under the Endangered Species Act.
How to Visit Visitors are welcome to tour the IFAW Beijing Raptor Rescue Center, one of the key conservation projects run by China’s International Fund for Animal Welfare. The center, on the campus of Beijing Normal University, cares for sick or injured birds of prey and birds confiscated from illegal traders (86-10-6440-2960; phone in advance). Several good hotels are nearby, including the Regent Beijing (86-10-8522-1888; doubles from $165) and the Raffles Beijing (86-10-6526-3388; doubles from $170).
Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Puerto Rico
Nominated by: Sierra Club
Puerto Rico’s 3,000-acre Northeast Ecological Corridor (NEC) is a pristine wonderland containing wetlands, coastal forests, a bioluminescent lagoon, and an important nesting ground for the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. It’s also prime real estate and under constant threat of development. For more than a decade, environmental scientist Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, 41, has worked tirelessly to prevent large-scale construction, including major hotel projects, in the NEC. Co-founder of the Initiative for Sustainable Development, he has built up widespread public support over the years; that, coupled with his deft handling of Puerto Rico’s political parties, finally led the governor to sign
a law earlier this year granting the entire NEC permanent protected status. Herrera is now working to develop ecotourism in the area to boost the local economy.
How to Visit The capital of San Juan is a 30 to 60-minute drive from the Northeast Ecological Corridor, where the star attractions include El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system, and the bioluminescent Laguna Grande, where you can take nighttime kayak tours (787-435-1665; from $48 per person).
Nomba Ganame, Mali
Nominated by: Wild Foundation
The Gourma region of central Mali, south of Timbuktu, is home to a herd of 500 to 600 elephants, one of only two populations of desert-dwelling elephants on earth. Each year, they trek 400 miles to reach Lake Banzena in the world’s longest-recorded elephant migration. Their range is also home to nomadic pastoralists from different clans who sometimes compete for the same resources—both with one another and with the elephants. The situation came to a head in 2009 when Lake Banzena, the elephants’ only source of water late in the dry season, was forecast to run dry.
A native of the Gourma, Nomba Ganame was ideally suited to help find a sustainable resolution for wildlife and humans alike. While serving as a technical expert for the World Bank, Ganame, 57, used his vacation time to conduct a survey which revealed that more than 50 percent of the human population living near Lake Banzena suffered from waterborne diseases as a result of sharing the lake with elephants and livestock. Soon after, he joined the Mali Elephant Project, an initiative of the Wild Foundation, and was able to persuade the local people to give elephants exclusive use of the lake in exchange for the establishment of boreholes to provide clean water for their communities and for the pastoralists’ herds of cattle. He also convinced Mali’s beleaguered government to help finance the boreholes. The plan was so successful that more than 70 communities have joined, and Ganame’s system now covers 45 percent of the elephants’ range.
How to Visit The U.S. Department of State—like most other Western governments—warns against travel to Mali because of ongoing conflict and high security risks. For less troubled times, Africa tour operator Explore can organize excursions to see the elephants (888-596-6377; tours from $2,800 per person, with a two-person minimum).
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