Environmental Awareness and Environmental Education in Myanmar
Hla Hla Win
The worldwide growth in environmental awareness over the past thirty years has been accompanied by a parallel recognition of the need for environmental education (EE). Government policies concerning the environment and sustainable development are likely to both guide and depend for success upon the knowledge and support of the citizenry. This is true in Myanmar (formerly Burma), where interest in environmental education has become stronger over the past decade.
Myanmar faces environmental problems of critical importance to its development, and the need for more EE programs in its schools is urgent. Since an essential task in developing new educational programs is to assess how and to what extent existing efforts address fundamental issues, this article looks at the current state of environmental education in Myanmar. Its focus is on the nations primary schools because, while EE is taught as a co-curricular activity in middle and high schools, it is at the primary level that the most active intiatives in environmental education have taken place.
To set the framework for discussing environmental education in Myanmar, this article begins with a brief look at the environmental issues facing Myanmar and existing efforts at environmental conservation.
Environmental Issues in Myanmar
Deforestation is the major environmental problem in Myanmar, according to a 1995 report by the Ministry of Forestry. Although 75 percent of Myanmar was once well endowed with natural forest resources, by 1989, only 51 percent of the country remained covered by forests. Deforestation is a strong contributing factor to the dwindling biodiversity in tidal forests and elsewhere, although the illegal poaching of wild elephants for their tusks and the use of primitive methods for hunting birds are also having adverse effects.
The main reasons for deforestation are excessive cutting to make way for agriculture, and the increasing demand for fuel timber and non-wood forest products, such as orchids, bat guano, and cane. Although pollution problems in Myanmar are now limited to industrialized areas, the use of chemicals in agriculture is expected to increase them, as the government encourages double cropping to boost agricultural production.
As in other developing countries, Myanmars environmental problems are linked to its growing population and its need for economic development. The population, increasing at an annual rate of 1.87 percent, was expected to reach about 49 million by the year 2000. The rapid deforestation is increasing human pressure on the environment and causing a breakdown in social customs. And, despite the relatively low level of industrialization, urban problems relating to health, sanitation, and housing already exist in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Mandalay, and other large cities.
Environmental Conservation in Myanmar
The history of environmental conservation in Myanmar dates from the last dynasty of Myanmar kings, who protected the teak forests and sanctuaries established by King Mindon in 1860. However, there was no central coordinating body for environmental matters before the creation of the National Commission for Environmental Affairs (NCEA) in 1990. This action followed the introduction of a market-oriented economic policy in 1988, when the need for a central institution to safeguard environmental interests quickly became clear. The NCEA comes under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and coordinates the work of various other ministries and departments. It includes four committees with separate responsibilities for the conservation of natural resources, the control of pollution, research education and information, and international cooperation.
In December 1994, Myanmar adopted a National Environmental Policy to ensure the incorporation of environmental concerns in planning for economic development. This policy emphasizes the responsibility of the State and every citizen to preserve its natural resources in the interest of present and future generations, and states that environmental protection should always be the primary objective in seeking development.1 The NCEA has since been working to raise public awareness of environmental issues by organizing workshops, seminars, and conferences among government officials, and using mass media to carry its message to the people.
The 1990s saw the enactment of several important environmental laws in Myanmar, including the Pesticide Law (1990); the Myanmar Tourism Law (1990); the Forest Law (1992); and laws to protect biodiversity, wild animals and plants, and natural areas (1994). Myanmar works to control deforestation through various projects in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Beyond this, it has entered into a number of international and regional environmental agreements, including the UNDPs Green House Gas Emission Reduction Plan in Asia and the Project on Regional Cooperation on Global Climate Change coordinated by the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).
The most recent effort to establish a blueprint for sustainable development is the NCEAs initiation of Myanmar Agenda 21 (based on Global Agenda 21) in 1997.2 Although Agenda 21 aims specifically at bringing environmental factors to bear on governmental policy making, it has the more general objective of making environmental awareness part of the daily lives of all citizens. To this end, it advocates EE programs in both formal (school) and non-formal settings.
At the level of basic education, it seeks to establish EE courses along with basic literacy programs for all children, and to provide teachers with specific training in environmental education. At the level of higher education, where the conservation movement is having its greatest impact, it seeks to establish departments of environmental education in order to promote research within this area. (A historical first is the creation of a postgraduate course in Environmental Planning and Management by the Department of Civil Engineering at the Yangon Institute of Technology in 1998). At the national level, Agenda 21 calls on leaders in business, academia, and other areas to help raise the level of environmental awareness in all sectors of society.
Environmental Education in Myanmar
Environmental education in Myanmar is strongest at the primary level, where it falls into two categories: EE in non-formal settings and EE in schools. The major impetus for environmental education in non-formal settings comes from United Nations agencies (such as the UNDP) and non-governmental agencies (NGOs), who are working with the Myanmar Education Research Bureau (MERB) and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to implement projects. What follows are some examples of both non-formal and formal school programs.
EE in Non-Formal Settings
Education for All, an EE program begun in some thirty townships in 1996, has since expanded to become nationwide in scope. Although principally a literacy education program, it emphasizes EE themes, especially those relevant to the lives of women and girls. The program covers such environmental topics as population control, energy problems, consumption of natural resources, soil preservation, health care, and home economy as a way to help people solve the environmental problems faced in daily life.
Another important program, Improving Access of Children, Women and Men of the Poorest Communities to Primary Education for All, began in eleven townships in 1996. The environmental aims of this project are (1) to promote respect and appreciation for the environment; (2) to teach environmental principles, such as the need to conserve natural resources and biodiversity; (3) to teach about environmental issues, such as deforestation and pollution; and (4) to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to tackle environmental problems. The project takes a child-centered approach and is developing a detailed syllabus of EE themes and activities for use in both pre-service and in-service teacher training at the primary school level.3
EE in Primary Schools
Turning to the primary schools, changing educational ideals have prompted adoption of a revised curriculum aimed at better meeting the needs of todays society. At the lower primary level, general studies (moral and civic education, aesthetic education, and life skills) will supplement the core subjects of Myanmar language, English, and mathematics. At the upper primary level, the educational program will include more basic science and social studies (considered to include geography, history, and moral and civic education). The overall goals of the new curriculum are to (1) develop basic language and mathematics skills; (2) raise responsible citizens; (3) promote social justice for all communities, and (4) foster skills for personal and healthy lives.4
The new curriculum places special emphasis on fostering good citizenship, which includes among its major components the development of environmental awareness. Within general studies, EE themes stress the relationship between human life and natural phenomena, the importance of traditional festivals and cultural heritages, and the importance of cooperation within a community. At the secondary level, EE themes within basic science emphasize personal hygiene and family health, respect for and curiosity about the
natural environment, and understanding the importance of natural resources for daily life. EE themes within the social studies include understanding cause and effect in solving problems, and appreciating the interdependency of people within a country and among countries in todays global society.
An important aspect of the proposed educational changes is the introduction of pre-primary education in Myanmar. Six learning areas have been identified for this level: basic skills (Myanmar language, English, and mathematics), physical education, character development (moral and civic education), aesthetic development, national values, and special experiences. Although environmental education is placed within the area of character development, it is also integral to special experiences, which include study of the senses; the importance of air, water, land, and food for healthy lives; and plants and animals.
The Effectiveness of EE in Myanmar
The effectiveness of environmental programs depends on the level of public participation; moreover, no environmental program can succeed if the public is unaware of the importance of environmental conservation and therefore does not participate actively in it. The first step toward such public awareness in Myanmar was actually taken about twenty years ago, in the form of the Patwinkyin (surroundings) program at the primary level and natural science courses at the lower secondary level. Both used outdoor activities to help develop sensitivity toward the natural environment. The surroundings program, which fell into disuse over time, was reintroduced into the curriculum in 1998.5
As Myanmar seeks to develop effective goals for environmental education, it is important to identify what they mean for different groupsincluding urban, rural, and ethnic communitieswithin the society. In assessing the significance of existing EE programs, we must consider how they were created, how they promote public awareness and participation, and how they bring about societal involvement. To this end, the author proposes four questions to consider in evaluating the effectiveness of environmental education in Myanmar.
1. Why has EE been introduced into school education?
Even before the current move to introduce environmental education at the primary school level, it was possible to discern similar concerns within the areas of nature study, conservation education, and outdoor education programs. But the emphasis in conservation education was first and foremost on human needs, and needed broadening to include the conservation of natural resources.
The advent of global society is causing change in some of Myanmars cultural and social ideals. International economic and cultural relationships are forcing Myanmar to participate actively in global sustainable development rather than just seeking to protect its own environment. Moreover, while the Myanmar people have had little experience with industrialization and the environmental problems it creates (such as pollution), the excessive exploitation of its natural resources now underway, and the pressures created by its growing population, underscore the need for Myanmar to seek ways to achieve sustainable development.
2. What kinds of EE programs are effective?
It is difficult to measure the level of effectiveness of an EE program, since its real value depends on human behavior, which is itself the product of complex social and psychological factors. However, if an EE program raises interest in environmental problems and encourages more people to participate in conservation efforts, this author believes it can be considered effective.
In developing countries like Myanmar, environmental education is being linked to the elimination of hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and repression as well as the enhancement of equality and harmony among nations.6 However, compared to the situation in more developed countries, the people of Myanmar may find it more urgent to provide for their basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter) than to solve environmental problems, at least in the near term. The Myanmar authorities are taking on a heavy burden in seeking to solve human and environmental problems simultaneously in the face of such pressing needs on the part of its people.
However, the EE programs currently being carried out in Myanmar are effective within certain limitations. The strength of the Education for Al#148; project lies in its stress on the role of women in society. While both men and women contribute to the economy of this agricultural nation, it is more often women who face the daily problems of meeting basic needs; EE can provide them with some benefits in dealing with immediate problems, such as AIDS and drug abuse. More long-range goals, such as those embodied in slogans like Lets plant more trees and Lets use husk stoves, can become effective if people understand how these these actions may help solve problems in their daily lives.
The old school curriculum already included many activities designed to involve students in conservation effortssuch as, greening the environment, school gardening and plantation programs, afforestation projects, and environmental health and sanitation programs. However, these programs were not very systematic, which is why the NCEA sought to make EE an academic subject in order to foster more environmentally conscious citizens.
3. How many years should EE be compulsory in schools?
The transmission of environmental awareness is of paramount importance for future generations, and the length of compulsory education is directly related to its achievement. In Japan, a developed country, nine years of compulsory education is available to all citizens. However, in Myanmar, which is in a slow process of national reconstruction after a long period of colonization, primary education is free but still not compulsory. If the effectiveness of EE is measured in terms of the duration of compulsory education, clearly longer periods of education make it possible to nurture more environmentally aware generations than shorter periods. Accordingly, an urgent educational issue for Myanmar is to make primary education compulsory. With assistance from UN organizations, the NCEA and the government as a whole are working to achieve this goal.
4. How can EE become more effective?
At the center of any effective program is the familiar environment in which a childs learning takes place. For this reason, it is important to make the home, the school, and the local community as active as possible in the learning process. Unfortunately, the majority of Myanmar citizens have had little opportunity to receive formal environmental education, and although they are likely to be concerned for the environment, they do not identify such concerns with the everyday problems of their lives. In order to achieve community participation, it is first necessary to raise the living standards of the people. Only then can they respond to the central message of environmental education and make use of opportunities to participate in sustainable development in Myanmar.
The new emphasis on environmental education in primary schools reflects a change in educational ideals in Myanmar. The new curriculum sees environmental awareness as an essential component of character education, meaning that sensitivity toward nature has moved from an aesthetic goal to an imperative of good citizenship.
Environmental education in Myanmar is becoming more widespread, and is being carried out as a form of societal education as well as formal learning in schools. In informal settings, EE is being linked to literacy and community development education, the latter including both consumer and vocational education. EE in schools is being offered as an academic subject at the primary level and a co-curricular activity at the secondary level. Myanmar can make environmental education more effective by establishing compulsory primary education and expanding EE to the middle and high school levels.
One point that should be clear from this article is how the new emphasis on environmental education in Myanmar reflects the move toward sustainable development at both the national and global levels. However, in order to attract more community support for environmental education, two problems must be addressed: how to shape programs that better meet the needs of people than they do at present; and, how to help people understand why sustainable development, in the long run, offers the best hope for meeting the needs of future generations.
1. Government of the Union of Myanmar, Notification No. 26/94 (December 5, 1994).
2. National Commission for Environmental Affairs, Myanmar Agenda 21 (Yangon: National Commission for Environmental Affairs, 1997), Foreward.
3. UNESCO, Improving Access of Children, Women and Men of Poorest Communities to Primary Education for All. MYA/96/004, Environmental Education Materials (Yangon:1998).
4. Yan Naing, Educational Planning and Training in Myanmar, Paper presented at Department of Educational Planning and Training, Ministry of Education, Yangon (September1998).
5. Yin Yin Lay, Public Awareness and Education and Public Participation, Paper presented at the Environmental Management Seminar, Yangon (January 1998).
6. Shoshana Keiny and Uri Zoller, eds., Conceptual Issues in Environmental Education (Peter Lang Comp,1991), 1.
Ching, M. Shih. Elementary School Teachers Perception of the Status of Environmental Education in Elementary Schools in Eastern Taiwan, The Republic of China. USA: Michigan, 1993.
Hla Kyaw. Environmental Assessment for Agricultural Development in Myanmar. Paper presented at Ministry of Agriculture. Yangon: Ministry of Agriculture, 1996.
Hla Oo New. Environmental Planning and Management in Agriculture and Rural Development. Report to the Union of Myanmar. Yangon: Ministry of Agriculture, 1995.
Khin Myint Myint Oo. Myanmars Strategies on Environmental Education. Country Report at Regional Seminar on Environmental EducationHanoi. Yangon: National Commission for Environmental Affairs, March 1996.
Mi Mi Kyi. Environmental Education and Communication in Myanmar. Paper presented at Asian Workshop on Communication and Education Strategies for Ministries of Environment and Potential Partners. Yangon: Ministry of Education, 1996.
Ministry of Education. Education Reform Programme for Peace and DevelopmentFirst Stage. Yangon: Ministry of Education, 1998.
Myint Han. Director of Myanmar Education Research Bureau. Interview with author (August 26, 1998).
National Institute for Educational Research. Environmental Education and Teacher Education in Asia and the Pacific. Final Report of a Regional Seminar. Tokyo: National Institute for Educational Research, 1993.
Paraskevopolous, S., S. Padeliadu, and K. Zafiropolos. Environmental Knowledge of Elementary School Students in Greece. Journal of Environmental Education. 29, no. 3 (1998): 55-60.
Wall, Geoffrey. Education and the Recreational Environment: An Unresolved Dilemma. Journal of Environmental Education 7, no. 4. (Summer 1976): 62-64.
Yin Yin Lay. Environmental Situation in Myanmar. Report to National Commission for Environmental Affairs. Yangon: March 1995.
Hla Hla Win is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.
Wildlife in Myanmar
The wildlife protected in Myanmar sanctuaries includes species more and less familiar to people in the United States. Students might have fun discovering what they can about some of the animals listed here.
Source: Wildlife Conservation Division,
Ministry of Forestry, Yangon, Myanmar