Can rice husk briquettes stem the tide of mangrove deforestation in Myanmar?


  • Despite the knowledge about the role mangroves play to protect inland areas from storm swells, and a nationwide ban on logging, Myanmar continues to lose mangroves, particularly to communities in the Irrawaddy Delta where electricity is lacking and a reliance on mangroves as firewood and to make charcoal.
  • An enterprising rice mill owner, U Zayar Myo, uses discarded rice husks to create compact briquettes that can be burned as an alternative fuel to mangrove wood or charcoal.
  • These rice-husk briquettes are now being distributed to other businesses historically reliant on burning mangrove wood, and point to one way to reduce the rate of mangrove deforestation in Myanmar.

IRRAWADDY DELTA, Myanmar — For many in Myanmar, Cyclone Nargis was a wake-up call. When it made landfall in May 2008, it devastated the Irrawaddy Delta, a rural and low-lying region of the country. It became the country’s deadliest natural disaster: more than 100,000 people died, and many more were displaced.

After Nargis, villagers living on the coast were reminded of how mangroves protect them: those located behind mangrove forests remained relatively unscathed. Villages with less protection had greater fatalities.

Mangroves, an ecosystem of strong-rooted trees that grow in swampy, intertidal regions, would serve as an important bulwark in the case of another natural disaster like Nargis.

But over the years, mangrove coverage in Myanmar has plummeted. By the early 1990s, Myanmar had lost up to 75 percent of its original mangrove cover, much of this land converted to aquaculture and rice fields, and the mangrove trees themselves burned as firewood or to make charcoal.

The Myanmar government recognized this rapid rate of deforestation and, in 2016, enacted a nationwide ban on logging. Some locals know that if the mangroves are left alone, they will regenerate in a matter of years.

But there’s an issue of supply and demand: because the majority of coastal villages in the Irrawaddy Delta lack electricity, the demand for firewood — and, by extension, the illegal logging of mangroves — persists. Over the years, people have attempted to make more fuel-efficient stoves, but their distribution in villages is arbitrary at best.

Then came U Zayar Myo, an entrepreneur who, after Nargis, was inspired to create an alternative fuel that could reduce people’s reliance on mangroves.

When the cyclone struck, U Zayar Myo was running his family business, a rice mill located in Kyaiklat, a town in the Irrawaddy Delta approximately 120 kilometers (77 miles) southwest of Yangon, the commercial capital. All of his family members survived, but his business suffered. The machines in his mill were destroyed by the flooding, and some of the farmers he bought rice from were killed.

“It was a stressful time,” U Zayar Myo recalled recently over tea and fruit; he added he had to scramble to get his factory running again and fulfill orders.

But Nargis also got him thinking about how to help conserve mangroves. He believed that producing an alternative to mangrove wood or charcoal could help.

From managing his mill, U Zayar Myo could see how much waste was being generated. The first step in milling rice is to separate the grain from its tough, golden husk. Rice husks are traditionally seen as waste and dumped in a river. And although they’re organic waste, these husks affect water quality, said U Zayar Myo: “Fish would eat it, and it’s indigestible for them, so it shortens their life cycle.”

Waste not, want not

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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