04/10/2012 04:59 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2012

Hope for a Green Future in Myanmar

In his first speech to parliament after nearly half a century of military rule in Myanmar, newly-elected President U Thein Sein caught the world's attention with his focus on ethnic reconciliation, human rights, and fighting corruption. But it was another pledge that caught the attention of conservationists. Thein Sein promised to "pay serious attention to conservation of forests and woodlands and take measures in various sectors to reduce air and water pollution, control dumping of industrial waste and conserve wildlife." Economic development, he declared, would proceed "in parallel with environmental conservation."

Six months later, he again surprised skeptics by announcing the suspension of the $3.6 billion Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River for the duration of his presidency. The mega-project would have created a reservoir over 12 times the size of Manhattan. Then last January, a Thai-backed 4,000 megawatt coal-fired power station at the Dawei Special Economic Zone was canceled. The Minister of Electrical Power cited the "fear of the adverse effects on the environment." Meanwhile, the previous Ministry of Forestry was renamed the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. Again, the new president had proposed bold environmental action.

In his second annual address, Thein Sein placed environmental sustainability alongside economic and social sustainability as the three basic pillars of national development. The Wildlife Conservation Society has worked with the citizens of Myanmar for years, seemingly the only voice for a green future for the country, but in fact supported by key people in government and civil society. It would have been impossible to proceed otherwise.

Cynics may question the fate of Myanmar's natural resources, but the nation's people, like those of South Sudan and Afghanistan, somehow manage to look past the daunting challenges facing their nations to imagine a future with parks, wildlife, and human communities served by intact ecosystems. It is WCS's core mission to offer them support and science-driven strategies to help that vision succeed.