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ADB urges protection of “natural capital” in the Mekong, while concerns persist about its huge infrastructure investment plans

Environment ministers from the six Mekong Region countries gather every three years to review environmental challenges and regional responses under the Greater Mekong Subregion Environment Ministers’ Meeting (EMM), hosted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The fourth EMM was on the theme of “Increasing Investments in Natural Capital in the Greater Mekong Subregion” and held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar from 27-29 January 2015.

About 400 participants including Mekong government delegations, private sector, civil society and the Myanmar media attended this year’s 4th EMM.

Surprisingly, none of the Mekong government environment ministers attended EMM4. The exception was the host Myanmar represented by H.E. U Win Tun, Union Minister, Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. 

H.E. Vice-President Dr. Sai Mauk Khan of Myanmar delivered the opening speech stating: “We need to bring all GMS stakeholders- governments, 4 businesses, development partners, and civil society- together to jointly unlock investments in natural capital to ensure food, energy and water security in future in our region.”H.E. Vice-President Dr. Sai Mauk Khan of Myanmar delivered the opening speech at EMM4

Natural capital: Going beyond resources management

ADB pushed the concept of natural capital as “more than just natural resource management”. But questions remain over the concept’s practical usefulness as the best way forward to meet the region’s urgent development and environmental challenges.

According to the ADB, EMM4’s objective was for “scaling up efforts to protect and enhance natural capital to achieve inclusive and sustainable development in the GMS.”

Dr. Daw Thet Thet Zin, Deputy Minister for Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry said: “Natural capital is the stock of capital drive from natural resources such as biodiversity and ecosystems in addition to geological resources such as fossil fuels and mineral deposits.

“It also underpins a range of ecosystem services, which are central to the livelihood of people; particularly to economically marginalized or resource dependent people as their subsistence livelihoods highly rely on ecosystem services and functions that underpin our economy and indirect benefits to business.”

Mr. Ancha Srinivasan, principal climate specialist with the ADB, said that the natural capital concept is an attempt to go beyond just “resource management”.

The conference ended with a Joint Ministerial Statement that stated: “Natural capital/resources lie at the heart of economic development.

“Future prosperity of the GMS will depend on timely and effective investments to protect and enhance its natural capital/resources.” 

Development priorities: US$30 billion for infrastructure

Can the concept of “natural capital” become something meaningful to address the region’s environmental challenges? Or is it just another conference jargon that would soon be forgotten?

These questions have gained further importance as the EMM4 followed the 5th GMS Summit held in December 2014 where GMS country leaders committed to a massive investment in regional infrastructure – a total of US$30 billion under the Regional Investment Framework (RIF) Implementation Plan (2014–2018). Of the planned US$30 billion under RIF, the ADB plans to spend 90% or US$27 billion on inland and transboundary road networks.

One of Asia’s poorest countries, Myanmar is just emerging from decades of economic isolation and armed conflict between the erstwhile military regime and the country’s ethnic minority groups. Its vast natural resources are currently being exploited for economic gain, from timber and jade to gold, coal and hydropower. Foreign direct investment in Myanmar rose from 1.9 billion in fiscal year 2011-12 to $2.7 billion in 2012-13 and China accounted for more than 40% of foreign investment. Meanwhile the country is desperately in need of schools, hospitals, public transport, and modernisation of its agriculture systems. Its government staff is some of the most poorly paid in the world. 

Pavan Sukhdev, an environmental economist and an expert in the field of green economy questioned the social and environmental sustainability of the RIF. In his presentation, he asked if these roads are merely a subsidy for private transportation: “Is the plan to get people more cars and the ADB builds more roads or are we helping with public transportation? Are these roads clearing forests, or are they able to avoid biodiversity areas?”

Related links:

1. EMM4 Joint Ministerial Statement.

2. EMM4 – All speeches and statements.

3. Storify collection of live tweets by SEI from #EMM4

Coming next: What is “Natural Capital”: Perspectives from Mekong policy makers at EMM4.