Last Frontier: What Are Environmental Funders Up to in This Remote Asian Country?

If you think about the Asian country of Myanmar, not that many Americans do, your mind will probably fix on its long history of isolation and military rule, before its recent transition to civilian rule. Or maybe you'll think of repression of ethnic minorities in the country that's lately led to an exodus of refugees.

When environmentalists think of Myanmar, though, they're apt to focus on growing threats to fragile ecosystems in a nation that's larger than France, with vast forests and over 1,300 miles of coastland. 

Myanmar’s marine areas, in particular, are feeling pressure from a lot of directions these days. The country has huge swaths of ocean under its control, which have historically supported both its food production and local economy. 

Increased urbanization is contributing to pollution from the land. The oil and gas industry, as it does, is actively exploring more extraction. Then there’s port development, overfishing and tourism. As journalist James Fahn showed in his powerful book, A Land on Fire, Southeast Asia has suffered devastating environmental consequences as a result of development—with much degradation to coastal areas. 

Myanmar has also been in something of a vacuum when it comes to marine planning, with most of its ocean territory currently unprotected. The core of the rapid change the country is experiencing is the fact that it was largely isolated from the world while under repressive military rule, opening up just in 2011. 

As the country reengages and adapts, while still grappling with instability, another force playing a role in the country’s future is philanthropy and NGOs. Most recently, in partnership with the Myanmar government, the Wildlife Conservation Society helped initiate a new marine spatial planning strategy (MSP), an effort to balance economic interests with biodiversity protections. 

Related: A Burst of Funding for Myanmar’s Pivotal Moment in Conservation

The effort was funded by two American foundations, the Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Blue Moon Fund, both of which also backed a recently released Myanmar Marine Biodiversity Atlas that will contribute to planning decisions. The former was unveiled at the end of February, and focuses on consensus building, developing new agreements, and improving data on the region. 

"Myanmar is a country undergoing great change as its engagement with the international community increases," said Martin Callow, advisor to WCS's Myanmar Marine Conservation Program, in the plan’s announcement. "At the same time, the country's irreplaceable marine heritage is at risk from this new spirit of openness. The new marine spatial planning strategy fills an urgent need to understand current and future marine resource use and how these activities can be combined into a coordinated plan for a sustainable ocean economy."

Since 2013, Helmsley has been a big influence on the country’s expanding conservation efforts, launching a Myanmar focus as a part of its own relatively new conservation funding program. Helmsley has about $5.5 billion in assets, and while its biggest area of interest is health, a place-based conservation program funds work in the Galapagos, Mexico, Madagascar and Myanmar. 

Helmsley has devoted almost $11 million to work in the country over just three years, according to its online grants database. We first reported on this work in 2014, and it's come a long way since then. The biggest grantees are WCS, Fauna & Flora International, and the Smithsonian.

RelatedA Burst of Funding for Myanmar’s Pivotal Moment in Conservation

While this effort has only been going on for a few years, it’s not clear how committed Helmsley will remain to the region, as it’s currently winding down its existing conservation focus areas and no longer accepting proposals for new grants. We won’t know more until 2018.  

The other funder behind the marine planning process is the Blue Moon Fund, a smaller foundation that is following a spend-down model and engaging in impact investing. This Virginia-based funder supports work in Myanmar as part of its program to help coastal communities plan. Other notable coastal funding includes work in Louisiana and Hampton Roads, Virginia, some of the most vulnerable regions in the U.S. to sea level rise. Blue Moon has made several grants to environmental work in Myanmar over the years.

We’ve also seen some significant conservation giving in the country from the MacArthur and Margaret A. Cargill foundations. Other notable funders, although not conservation-related, include the Gates Foundation, which has poured several million into health programming in the country. As the country continues to experience rapid change, we can surely expect huge influence from some of these funders and more.