By Naveed Nanjee
This past summer, I had the opportunity to take Professor William Schulte’s course on Environmental Governance in the Developing World. Professor Schulte was an LL.M fellow with the U.S.-Asia Partnership for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School and has been spending the past several years working and living in Southeast Asia. Throughout the 8-week summer course, we were guided through Southeast Asia’s development of environmental law, often learning first-hand the challenges in implementation and good environmental governance. The course prepared us for a two-week field study in Cambodia and Myanmar, by drawing from a variety of case studies in China and the lower Mekong region.
During the summer, in addition to taking this course, I had the opportunity to be a Research Associate for Professor Schulte through the U.S.-Asia Partnership. This research focused on lessons from Environmental Public Interest Litigation in the United States, India, and China and their influence on Myanmar. In addition, this research helped focus my interest on the development of Myanmar’s environmental laws and deeply informed the subsequent field study.
At the end of the course, a group of students, including myself, packed their bags and flew to Southeast Asia for a two-week intensive field study. Getting halfway across the world is always the first challenge, as some of us had more interesting flight patterns than others. Even Professor Schulte found himself with a connecting flight in Hong Kong at the height of the protests aimed at opposing the introduction of fugitive offenders amendment bill. Thankfully, everyone on our trip arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia without too many hiccups.
In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we met with Cambodia’s Youth Network and other environmental advocates. They shared stories of how they are organizing young people from around the country to promote human rights and environmental justice. A number of the advocates we met had been arrested for their efforts in fighting deforestation. We learned that Cambodia has one of the fastest rates of forest loss in the world, escalating the effects of climate change not only in the country, but also around the globe. The youth network’s staunch commitment to fighting for environmental justice was incredibly inspiring, and we carried their stories throughout our trip.
We also met with the Vishnu Law Group and other Eco -mbassadors, who shared the work they were doing in the Anlung Pring and the Saurus Crane Protected Area. We then traveled with Vishnu Law Group to Anlung Pring, near the border of Vietnam, to the protection area. After learning so much about the world’s tallest flying bird, we were hoping to get a glimpse of a Saurus Crane, now listed a vulnerable species. However, because we were visiting in the rainy season, we weren’t fortunate enough to catch a sighting. The Anlung Pring Community invited all of us back to visit during the dry season, when more than 20,000 birds migrate to the area.
Also in Cambodia, we spent a night in river bungalows in Trapeang Sangkae, a community-based ecotourism site in Kampot. That night, we got a taste of the monsoon season as our transport was flooded. We then took boats down the river to plant mangroves. Mangrove plantations provide shelter to local fisheries by preventing the erosion of stabling settlements as well as protecting shorelines from damaging storms. After the rains calmed down, we traveled back to Phnom Penh and then to Yangon, Myanmar.
On our first day in Yangon, we met with Earth Rights International (ERI), who then guided us north into the Shan State. There, we had the opportunity to meet with the National Project Coordinator of the United Nations Development Program and local NGOs to learn about the work they are doing to try to protect Inle Lake, a globally recognized Biosphere Reserve and an important cultural heritage site. A new draft law has been proposed to establish a management authority to localize more of the governance to ensure the sustainability of Myanmar’s second-largest body of fresh water. One of my highlights was taking a boat tour on Inle Lake to witness first-hand how a community of 60,000 people lives on the lake and uses traditional fishing methods for catching fish in shallow waters while using one leg to paddle their boats. This balancing act depicted just how precious Inle lake is to local communities in the Shan State and the broader country and underscored how it must be protected for future generations.
Overall, this two-week field study greatly enhanced our learnings from the course on Environmental Governance. It provided experiential and service-learning and brought the importance of good law and policy to life. Although Cambodia and Myanmar have a number of challenges in protecting their environment, civil society in both countries is making great strides in raising international awareness to hold the government accountable.