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Innovative conservation efforts honored

Myanmar, July 31, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Flourishing stove vendor Myat Soe, who has manufactured 230 stoves since starting his business in 2011, hopes success will help pay for the schooling of his children. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Many youth are involved in caring for the new mangrove saplings, which, in a few years, will combat erosion and strong storms like 2008's devastating Cyclone Nargis. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Benny Manser/Mercy Corps  </span>
    "Two or three people bought the stoves and then word of mouth took care of the rest," says Myat Soe’s wife, Myint Myint Kyu, of the growing popularity of the stoves she sells at the local market. Photo: Benny Manser/Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' innovative efforts to save valuable mangroves in Myanmar has won a big accolade.

The “Best Practices and Innovations” award, given by InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international charities, recognizes Mercy Corps’ work training villagers in the Delta’s Laputta Township to manufacture and use fuel-efficient stoves as well as plant mangrove sapling nurseries. The ambitious program aims to reduce wood shortages and waste.

"The project started with addressing the need for scarce resources,” says David Nicholson, senior energy advisor for Mercy Corps' Myanmar program. “It ultimately had a sustainable environmental component and was a vehicle for community engagement.”

The program has helped to alleviate the strain on wood supply, but perhaps most importantly, it has given community members, especially women and children, the opportunity to participate in, manage and prosper from local stove-building and nursery businesses.

Mangrove saplings and fuel-efficient stoves promote opportunity

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar’s fertile Ayeyarwady Delta, causing widespread erosion and flooding in an area already weakened by pervasive deforestation. The country’s worst natural disaster reiterated the need to conserve one of Myanmar’s most precious resources: mangrove forests.

The strong roots of the mangrove tree, which is commonly found in swampy areas, prevent erosion and act as a barrier against natural disasters. But villagers also use the wood for fuel, which has led to rampant deforestation. To increase their numbers, the Mercy Corps team encouraged the production of new nurseries. While the tender saplings will not be mature for a few years, their benefits against erosion and resource scarcity will help the community in the long-term.

The second part of the program aimed to make the villagers’ wood usage sustainable and even profitable, with the production and use of high-efficiency stoves. Made out of clay, they lock heat within the stove and funnel it to the pot. They require much less firewood than traditional three-stone stoves and produce the same amount of usable energy.

Those who must forage for ever-dwindling fuel have little time to work and the long journeys have a negative impact on their health. And most are women and children, who lose out on opportunities to pursue an education and find better jobs.

With this new, simple engineering, children have more time to learn and women and youth are creating new business, building these stoves with local materials for their communities.

New community businesses are enduring, sustainable

Nicholson and Myanmar program manager Mra Sabai Nyun believe that the newly created businesses are the project’s biggest success.

“When we got there, there weren’t a lot of companies that you could just go to and say, ‘Why don’t you try making cook stoves?’” Nicholson says wryly.

Community groups, many of which sprung up after the cyclone but lacked the means to address the area’s poverty, received training and cash grants for the stove project.

"These groups now have the capacity to be involved in community projects, and increase their management skills and financial literacy,” Nicholson says.

In the future, empowered leaders from various groups will have the means to help rebuild their communities with their new skill sets. According to Nicholson, a good number of the stove manufacturers that were trained will last long-term and be genuine enterprises.

The program is expanding to three regions of Myanmar, Nicholson says. The award, however, is heading to Laputta to be viewed and appreciated by the locals who were excited to hear about the honor.

“They were absolutely thrilled,” he says. “Not just the team themselves, but also the local partners. They felt that it vindicated a lot of their hard work and that they had done something really new and exciting.”