Myanmar is one of the most forested countries in Southeast Asia, with large landscapes that contain habitat for globally important biodiversity and provide critical ecosystem services. The country has experienced dramatic economic, social and political transitions. Several successive governments have prioritized large-scale infrastructure development aimed at opening up regional trade and transportation links and increasing access for natural resource extraction. Recognizing the urgent need to balance socioeconomic and environmental tradeoffs in the design and implementation of these projects, our team from WWF and the Smithsonian Institution worked to highlight the ecological value and natural capital to decision-makers in Myanmar’s former civilian government. We designed an intuitive spatial analysis tool to explore the impacts of planned or existing infrastructure on wildlife corridors. We had a successful rollout of the corridor mapping tool in 2019, via a one-week “map-a-thon” in Myanmar in which stakeholders crowdsourced data, developed case studies and proposed solutions to address infrastructure impacts to wildlife corridors on priority landscapes. This early success spurred us to develop a web application to make our corridor mapping workflow accessible to a larger user base. In parallel, we pivoted to conducting a rapid assessment to respond to an evolving situation regarding a major international highway being initiated through the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, a Key Biodiversity Area and one of the largest and oldest protected areas in Myanmar. In the process, we identified exigencies that developers face during road planning, alignment and construction. Innovative aspects of this approach include:a) the ability to customize local construction cost estimates, impacts to biodiversity and land cover, and socioeconomic costs and benefits, and; b) the use of Google Earth Engine’s powerful cloud-based platform and data catalog, enabling this approach to be rapidly applied in other landscapes globally. Local costs of labor, construction materials, forest and earth moving, and most critically, the ecological cost of infrastructure projects passing through habitat or ecosystem services are included in the optimization of the alignment. Collectively, these tools and approaches offer streamlined workflows that lower barriers to use and allow for direct input from local stakeholders in the identification of wildlife movement corridors and assessment of alternative linear infrastructure project alignments. Given the wide applicability of this approach and the regional significance of these infrastructure developments, whose footprints extend well beyond Myanmar’s borders, we continue to build upon our assessments and are committed to sharing the outputs and tools widely.
Mainstreaming ecology in transportation planning and program delivery