June 23, 2015
This week’s Environmental Leaders profile features Myint Zaw of Yangon, Myanmar. Facing heavy government scrutiny and restricted use of tools like email or social media, Myint Zaw launched a national movement that successfully stopped construction of the Myitsone Dam on Myanmar’s treasured Irrawaddy River. Myint is also The 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient for Asia.
After studies abroad, Zaw returned to Myanmar in 2008 and started a foundation to help victims of Cyclone Nargis; but the journalist in him saw the power of storytelling in connecting the environment’s health and grassroots activism, which was gaining momentum in the aftermath of the disaster.
Meanwhile, a Chinese state-owned utility company announced it was investing $3.2 billion to build a dam along the Irrawaddy. The majority of electrical output from the Myitsone Dam would be going to China, doing little to address energy needs in Myanmar.
In 2009, with the Myitsone as its lynchpin issue, Zaw shifted the foundation’s focus to environmental issues and became the creative engine in a public awareness campaign about the dam.He began organizing art exhibits—one of the few ways he could engage citizens while avoiding government scrutiny. In a remarkable show of ingenuity and diligence, Zaw and his colleagues went about their work without the aid of tools like email and social media. The exhibits turned into a national movement, with people taking their own initiative to raise awareness. Artists wrote poems and songs about the river. Citizens spread pamphlets and DVDs about the dam in their own communities.
The growing movement attracted the attention of policymakers and local media, whose ability to cover social issues was gaining some breathing room under the new government. The campaign material reached the upper echelons of government, including the vice president’s office, and in 2011, in what many see as evidence of hope for Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, President Thein Sein halted the dam’s construction and vowed the project will not proceed for as long as he’s in office.
The dam’s fate will be decided by the upcoming elections in Myanmar. However, given the widespread awareness of the dam, the government will no longer have the luxury of unilateral decision-making.
To learn more about Myint, visit www.goldmanprize.org/myint
You can read more about The Goldman Environmental Prize and this year’s winners in this recent Eco News Network article. https://econewsnetwork.org/2015/04/goldman-environmental-prize-winners/
To read Eco News Network’s Sustainability Leaders profile on Geoff Chapin of Next Step Living click here.
Photo provided by The Goldman Environmental Prize.