William Bleisch, PhD
Aboard the HM Explorer on the Ayeyarwaddy, Myanmar

Bamboo raft at foot of Second Defile. The sound of chainsaws echoes through the canyon almost throughout the day. The Second Defile is being logged.

The dreadful background noise makes me cringe reflexively, but the visual scene is still spectacular. The mighty river narrows to a deep ribbon of dark water that snakes between towering hills. The bare rocks of the cliffs stand out from the deep green of the forest, several large trees towering over their neighbours. Birds are abundant and diverse. We even see a small flock of hornbills flying high overhead.

We travel downriver in two Zodiac inflatables to get a close look at the famous Parrots Beak, a pscitid-like rock formation that overhangs the river. The beak, painted bright red, dips to within 2 meters of the flowing water. Legend has it that if the water rises to the point where the parrot can drink, then disaster will befall the kingdom. We wonder if last weeks flood waters fulfilled the prophecy.

We interview a group of loggers who are resting in a bamboo hut on the right bank of the river, just below the cliffs. The man who seems to be the leader is happy to chat with us. He is from Chin State in western Myanmar, where the hornbills are considered a very special bird. They are even displayed in the centre of the flag of the Chin State party. Unfortunately, he tells us, the birds have disappeared in Chin State, although they are still found just here. It seems that those remaining large trees provide roosts and nesting sites for a small flock of about 15 Oriental Pied Hornbills. I see a Green-billed Malkoha and then a Black-crested Bulbul behind the loggers’ hut. A flock of three goshhawks soar high overhead.

Old print of Second Defile compared to now.Back at the HM Explorer, our first mate hands me a small Rita catfish that he has caught. As dusk approaches, two large bats fly directly over, and we listen to them chattering in ultra-sound with a Bat Detector set to about 25 MHz. Our boat, berthed on a sandy bank, is in the evening shadow of the tall cliff. It is known as the Deva-faced Cliff, but the outline in the rock looks more like the full figure of a Bodhisattva to me. Legend has it that the goddess once saved the life of a prince. His brother had decreed that the Prince should be thrown from the top of the cliff.

We shouldn’t blame his brother too much. He was just following the time-honored Burmese tradition of protecting his claim to the throne of the kingdom by removing all other claimants. However, in this legendary case, the Deva in the cliff must have felt sorry for the ill-starred prince, and she saved him from death. The story-teller did not relate what happened next – whether the Prince claimed the throne and set the country on a path to civil war, or accepted his defeat and worked to spare the kingdom the heartbreak of more violence.

You would think that the Second Defile would be a sacred place, with its Parrot Beak and Deva-faced Cliff. But when I ask Su Hlaing Myint, our CERS Myanmar Project Manager, she denies it. She tells me that there are so many trees here because the site is disputed between two rival armies, the Myanmar National Army and the Kachin Independence Army. Perhaps as a result, no one has jurisdiction here, and independent loggers can operate freely on a small scale.

Mothers with multiple children at single house by the bank.Peace may bring prosperity, but prosperity may not bring peace to the Second Defile. In any other country, this site would be a National Park, protected as a tourism resource and promoted as one of the attractions of the country. In modern Asia, tourism and heritage often take a back seat. I think back on the last months of travel. Everywhere I go these days, no matter how remote, the signs of progress are evident – new industrial banana plantations near Pu Er in Yunnan, new rubber plantations in Luang Namtha in northern Lao PDR, a new hydro dam on the Nam Tha River downstream in Bokeo Province, large-scale mines on the banks of the Ayeryarwaddy and Chindwin Rivers.

The pace of change is accelerating exponentially, as it must if we are to fulfill the targets set by governments and global bodies for economic growth. The government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic has set a target for economic growth of 7% for the year, necessary they say to pull the country out of its status as one of the Least Developed Countries in the world. A laudable goal for a country where the per capita income, recorded by the World Bank as GNI, averages only $1,600. The reported GNI for Myanmar is only $1,200, but Myanmar is on track to achieve 8.5% growth in GDP this year.

But what does this mean in practice? Lao PDR has no industry to speak of. Although it exports good rice and excellent coffee, and has a growing and healthy tourism industry, the big drivers of the economy all involve exploitation of natural resources – hydropower, industrial agriculture, mining. The economic plan is very much centered on these industries. Myanmar seems to be heading in much the same direction.

If extraction of natural resources are to be the engine behind rapid economic growth in these countries, then extraction and utilization must increase by a comparable amount each year. If 7% growth in GDP based is based on 7% growth in resource extraction, the simple arithmetic of exponential growth means that the rate of extraction must double in 9.9 years. It will triple in 15.7 years, quadruple in less than 20 years. Four times more mines, dams, plantations ….

Hornbill at Second Defile of upper Irrawaddy River. As we head back downstream, the current and engine work together and the boat seems to zip over the surface of the river. We race past the line of 23.5 degree latitude and re-enter the tropics. We rush past a checkerboard of old pastures, bamboo shrubland, planted teak and the bare red earth of newly cleared fields ready for the plow. The shrub forest is studded with the tall trunks and high canopies of old tamarinds, mangos and fig trees. We speed past small villages composed of huts perched on top of teak wood stilts, their walls made of bamboo mats woven in checkerboard patterns. The green of bamboo and shrubs seems to hug and shelter these villages. Fishing boats and cargo vessels are moored on the river below.

The HM Explorer sails on downstream and we soon reach a point on the river with a 3G signal where I can get back in touch with the world. I look at the times on the e-mails coming into my In-box; 17:48, 21:50, 23:45, 00:18, 5:53. They are all from Asia, most from the Beijing time zone. It seems none of my colleagues ever stop working anymore. I think of us all, dedicated to changing the world in some positive way. Perhaps my colleagues all feel as I do, that we must run faster and faster but, even so, we are still failing to keep pace with the negative changes. Change that itself is driven as if by a relentless machine; consumers driven by a search for novelty, governments trapped on a treadmill of economic growth at any cost, workers driven by fear of an economic system that must sacrifice human well-being, environmental health and cultural integrity to keep up a steady pace of endless growth, or face catastrophic failure.

The boat races on. The landscape changes to flat fields and the boat winds between islands covered in tall grass. High winds stir up choppy water and we give up hope of seeing the last Irawaddy Dolphins in the waves. Ancient stupas newly painted white or gold stand out on the banks like exclamation points in the narrative of the river. Soon we are back in busy Mandalay and the end of our river trip.