By KYI WAI
BOGALAY, Irrawaddy Delta — Before Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's Irrawaddy delta, the island known as Mein Ma Hla (in Burmese "pretty woman") was beautiful, the home of dense mangrove forests and bamboo.
Now, the island remains badly scarred, the mangrove forests devastated, and large fallen trees still testify to the cyclone’s wrath.
Cyclone Nargis destroyed 16,800 hectares of mangrove forest (about 30 percent) and 20,999 hectares of forest plantations in Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta, according to the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report.
At one time, mangrove forests formed impenetrable areas along the delta coastline. Large kanazo and beau trees towered toward the sky. One local resident recalled it was like living in a big tree house.
Traditionally, local villagers cut down trees on Pretty Woman Island and nearby Kyun Nyo Gyi for firewood and charcoal.
But more rapid changes started in 1990s, when investors began to develop the area into prawn farms. Vast stretches of mangrove forests were cleared for the farms, which reaped investors big profits.
Fortunately, much of Pretty Woman Island itself was protected by law and escaped deforestation and prawn farm development, while continuing to provide local resources to residents and offer shelter for numerous animals including crocodiles, monkeys, samburs, birds, squirrels and fish.
The one Hundred Monkeys Pagoda and other religious sites located in the area also gave many residents a feeling of sacredness and tradition, say local residents.
A forest ranger on the island recalled, "In the past, villagers who came into the forest didn't bring along meat to eat. To pay respect the spirits, they even spoke politely. They chopped a few trees for their own use, not a lot, and maintained a tradition which paid respect to the spirits." According to a local belief, a greedy tree-cutter who didn’t honor the spirits would be eaten by a crocodile.
While Cyclone Nargis destroyed most of the villages along the costal area and killed nearly 140,000 people, residents on Pretty Woman escaped unharmed.
"That night, me and my wife were illegally cutting trees on the island,” said a man from Lama village. “Those big trees in the mangrove forest saved our lives. Not only us, all the villagers who were on the island that night escaped from the storm.”
Most of the bigger trees were broken or toppled down. Smaller trees and bushes survived.
"The bushes were there even after the cyclone,” said a resident of Padaekaw village. “But many dead bodies from the villages were floating in the water and were caught up in the bushes. After about a week, the army burned the dead bodies. They used a flame-thrower. That's why many trees and bushes are also burned.”
Following the cyclone, many crocodiles, monkeys, samburs and squirrels were killed or have since left the area.
"The crocs are moving,” said a resident of Sitsalong village. “After Nargis, the crocs got a chance to eat dead bodies. They are now human-eating crocs. Recently, a man in our village was attacked and eaten by a croc while he was setting his fishing net. And a child from Ngethu village was taken by a croc. That time, the little boy was sitting on the back of a boat. The croc first hit the boy with its tail, then the boy fell into the water and the croc took him away. The villagers in this area are now very afraid of croc attacks."
A forest ranger estimated that there were about 1,000 crocodiles on Pretty Woman Island and in the nearby area. A crocodile farm was located on the island, and the animals were protected by law.
Conservationists have warned that deforestation plays a key role in climate change, and Burma has lost large portions of forests in the delta and throughout the country since 1990, largely due to timber cutting.
The mangrove forest in the delta at one time served as a natural barrier against storms. Environmentalists had warmed of the consequences of deforestation and the loss of animal habitat, but their pleas largely went unheeded.
An environmental conservationist in Rangoon said, “When the cyclone hit, thousand of people lost their life. It's a direct consequence of the deforestation of mangroves. Prawn farms should not be allowed in those areas. The government should consider the interest of local people and the habitat."
Initial plans call for 750 hectares of mangrove forest to be replanted in Irrawaddy Division over a five-year period, according to an officer with the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association.
Additionally, UN Development Programme plans to replant 30,000 coconut and palm trees in five townships of the Irrawaddy delta, but that represents only a small portion of the trees destroyed.
Many aid organizations and other groups are working to replant the mangrove forests, Following Nargis the attitude of local people toward the forest has changed.
"Before Nargis, I was selling firewood in Bogalay,” said a villager from Lamu. “When the cyclone hit, I was on Pretty Woman. The trees saved my life. The other thing is that some people from rescue organizations talked about the importance of the mangrove forests. I don't want to cut the trees for a living anymore. I changed my mind. Instead, I am going to work as a fisherman."
He said villagers have also reassessed the role of prawn farms in the area
"In our village, prawn farms were everywhere. We had no place to hide. If we had mangrove forests, most people would have survived. Many of us are now ready to help replant the mangrove forests"
Lamu village, where the man lives, was home to about 700 people before Cyclone Nargis. About 100 survived.