DEFORESTATION AND ILLEGAL LOGGING IN MYANMAR

DEFORESTATION IN MYANMAR

Myanmar is one of the world’s most thickly forested countries but its forests are threatened by neighbors such as China and Thailand as well as Myanmar cronies and generals anxious to enrich themselves. According to the environmental group Global Witness, “Burma is resource rich but surrounded by resource-hungry nations and the this regime has used this fully to its advantage.” Large swaths of virgin rain forest has been cleared by Chinese logging companies, the military regime and insurgent groups to make money. Ethnic insurgents use money earned from selling timber to fight the regime, who in turn uses money earned from selling timber to fight the ethnic insurgents.

Myanmar has one of the world's highest deforestation rates. Mongabay.com reported: “Burma has one of the highest rates of forest loss on Earth. Between 1990 and 2005, Burma lost an average of 466,000 hectares of forest per year—or 18 percent of its total forest cover during that period. The deforestation rate has increased by 13.5 percent since the close of the 1990s. Deforestation and forest degradation in Burma largely results from agriculture, logging, fuel wood collection, and, to a lesser extent, development for energy infrastructure. Logging in Burma is predominantly for teak, although the government is trying to promote the country's lesser known timber species to the international market. [Source: Mongabay.com ***]

Burma's forest loss, and lack of forest protection (less than 1 percent of the country is protected) puts its biological diversity at risk. Burma has some 1709 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Center. Of these, 4.7 percent are endemic and 5.9 percent are threatened. Burma is home to at least 7000 species of vascular plants, of which 15.3 percent are endemic. ***

Until the late 1990s, large parts of southern and eastern Burma had remained free from military rule due to the resistance of indigenous groups. However the inflow of foreign capital, mainly through offshore natural gas concessions to foregin firms, has given the military the means to assert control over these regions and increasingly exploit teak and other forest resources, in addition to local populations.

Landsat satellite imagery from the 1990s and 2000s shows that Myanmar has retained much of its forest cover, but forests have declined by 0.3 percent annually. Deforestation varied considerably among administrative units, with central and more populated states and divisions showing the highest losses. Ten deforestation hotspots had annual deforestation rates well above the countrywide average. Major reasons for forest losses in these hotspots stemmed from increased agricultural conversion, fuelwood consumption, charcoal production, commercial logging and plantation development. While Myanmar continues to be a stronghold for closed canopy forests, several areas have been experiencing serious deforestation. Most notable are the mangrove forests in the Ayeyarwady delta region and the remaining dry forests at the northern edge of the central dry zone." [Source: Forest cover change patterns in Myanmar (Burma) 1990-2000, Peter Leimgruber, Daniel S. Kelly, Marc. K. Steininger, Jake Brunner, Thomas Mueller, Melissa Songer Foundation for Environmental Conservation, April 22, 2005]

Deforestation Rates at a Crisis Level in Myanmar?

In August 2012, UPI reported: “Myanmar's forest coverage is down to only a fifth of the country's total area and officials say they want a total ban on exporting wood to foreign countries. The country's Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee said Wednesday total forest coverage area was down to 24 percent in 2008 from 51 percent in 2005, China's official Xinhua news agency reported. The main cause of forest depletion, the committee said, was excessive cutting down of trees, illegal logging, less replanting and increased use of firewood. Log exports, both legal and illegal, left the country with insufficient raw timber to manufacture finished products, a recent national seminar on energy, environment and climate change was told. Finished-wood exporters at the seminar said based on the forest depletion report, they would be willing to completely stop exporting logs. [Source: UPI, August 22, 2012]

Mongabay.com reported: “An official warned that Myanmar is facing a deforestation crisis due to poor forest management, illegal logging, and fuelwood collection. U Thein Lwin, secretary of the Lower House's Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee, claimed during a workshop on energy, environment and climate change that forest cover had fallen from 51 percent in 2005 to 24 percent in 2008. However the figures differed substantially with independent assessments of Myanmar's forest cover. A paper published earlier this year in the journal Science estimated Myanmar's forest cover at 46-48 percent based on satellite analysis, while research published last year in PNAS put the number at above 50 percent. The U.N. last year reported 48 percent forest cover for Myanmar in 2010. [Source: mongabay.com, August 23, 2012]

Logging and Illegal Logging in Myanmar

Illegal logging of Myanmar's famed teak forests is a major problem. London-based environmental group Global Witness estimates that 1.5 million tonnes of timber worth $350 million was shipped illegally into China in 2005.

While there has been an official ban on raw log exports since 1993 in Myanmar, evidence collected by several groups, including Global Witness, suggests that illegal logging is rife in Burma. Global Witness reports that in 2004, more than 1 million cubic meters of timber—about 95 percent of Burma's total timber exports to China—were illegally exported from northern Myanmar to Yunnan Province.

Following the logging ban in China in 1998 after the 1998 floods there was a decline in the production of timber within China and an increase in production for the Chinese market within Southeast Asia, including both legal and illegal logging. This is a good example of how stricter regulations in a country like China— with many forest-exploiting industries—causes forest exploitation to be passed on to countries with weaker regulatory regimes.

See Thailand, China

Timber Trade Between Myanmar and China

Through a market chain of buyers and sellers timber from Myanmar crosses the Yunnan-Myanmar border and makes its way to Guangdong Province and Shanghai on China’s eastern seaboard, where it is processed into a number of different products. According to Center for International Forestry Research, “ downstream buyers on China’s eastern seaboard who are driving the timber business along the Yunnan Myanmar border. While the boom in the timber business has provided income generating opportunities for many, from villagers in Myanmar to Chinese migrant businessmen, forests that can be cost-effectively harvested in Myanmar along its border with Yunnan are in increasingly short supply. This entails a need to explore priority areas such as transitioning border residents away from a reliance on the timber industry, assessing and mitigating the cross-border ecological damage from logging in Kachin and Shan States, and developing a more sustainable supply of timber in Yunnan through improving state plantations and collective forest management.” [Source: An Overview of the Market Chain for China's Timber Product Imports from Myanmar, Fredrich Kahrl, Horst Weyerhaeuser, Su Yufang, Forest Trends, Center for International Forestry Research, 2005]

“China’s trade in timber products with Myanmar grew substantially from 1997-2002, from 295,474 m3 (round wood equivalent, RWE) in 1997 to 947,765 m3 (RWE) in 2002. Despite increased volume, timber product imports from Myanmar comprised only 2.5 percent of China’s total timber product imports from 1997-2002. However, the small fraction of total imports masks two important features: i) timber imports from Myanmar are primarily logged in slow-growing natural forests in northern Myanmar; and ii) logging activities that support the China-Myanmar timber trade are increasingly concentrated along the border in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. This greater concentration of the timber trade has begun to have substantial ecological and socio-economic impacts within China’s borders. [Source: Navigating the Border: An Analysis of the China-Myanmar Timber Trade, Fredrich Kahrl, Horst Weyerhaeuser, Su Yufang, Forest Trends, World Agroforestry Center, 2004 /+\]

“The majority of China’s timber product imports from Myanmar are shipped overland through neighboring Yunnan Province – 88 percent of all imports from 1997-2002 according to China’s national customs statistics. Of these, more than 75 percent of timber product inflows passed through the three prefectures in northwest Yunnan that border Kachin State. Most of these logging activities are currently concentrated in three areas — Pianma Township (Nujiang Prefecture), Yingjiang County (Dehong Prefecture), and Diantan Township (Baoshan Municipality). Logging that sustains the timber industry along Yunnan’s border with Kachin State is done by Chinese companies that are operating in Myanmar but are based along the border in China. Logging activities in Kachin State, from actual harvesting to road building, are almost all carried out by Chinese citizens. Although the volume of China’s timber product imports from Myanmar is small by comparison, the scale of logging along the border is considerable, and border townships and counties have become over-reliant on the timber trade as a primary means of fiscal revenue. /+\

“As the costs of logging in Myanmar rise, this situation is increasingly becoming economically unsustainable, and shifts in the timber industry will have significant implications for the future of Yunnan’s border region. Importantly, a large proportion of logging and timber processing along the border is both managed and manned by migrant workers. Because of companies’ and workers’ low level of embeddedness in the local economy, border village communities are particularly vulnerable to swings in the timber trade. More broadly, timber trade has done little to promote sustained economic growth along the China-Myanmar border as profits, by and large, have not been redirected into local economies. In addition to socio-economic pressures, the combination of insufficient regulation in China and political instability in northern Myanmar has exacted a high ecological price. The uncertain regulatory and contractual environment has oriented the border logging industry toward short-term harvesting and profits, rather than investments in longer-term timber production. “ /+\

Illegal Logging from in Myanmar to China

The Global Witness report “Ending the Destruction of Burma’s Northern Frontier Forests”: “details shocking new evidence of the massive illicit plunder of Burma’s forests by Chinese logging companies. Much of the logging takes place in forests that form part of an area said to be “very possibly the most bio-diverse, rich, temperate area on earth.” In 2004, more than 1 million cubic meters of timber, about 95 percent of Burma’s total timber exports to China were illegally exported from northern Burma to Yunnan Province. This trade, amounting to a $250 million loss for the Burmese people, every year, takes place with the full knowledge of the Burmese regime, the government in Beijing and the rest of the international community. Chinese companies, local Chinese authorities, regional Tatmadaw and ethnic ceasefire groups are all directly involved. “On average, one log truck, carrying about 15 tonnes of timber, logged illegally in Burma, crosses an official Chinese checkpoint every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; yet they do nothing.” Said Jon Buckrell of Global Witness. [Source: Global Witness, A Choice for China: Ending the destruction of Burma's frontier forests, October 18, 2005 *-*]

“In September 2001 the government of the People’s Republic of China made a commitment to strengthen bilateral collaboration to address violations of forest law and forest crime, including illegal logging and associated illegal trade. However, since then, illegal imports of timber across the Burma-China border have actually increased by 60 percent. “A few Chinese businessmen, backed by the authorities in Yunnan Province, are completely undermining Chinese government initiatives to combat illegal logging. Not only are the activities of these loggers jeopardising the prospect of sustainable development in northern Burma they are also breaking Chinese law.” Said Buckrell." *-*

“In September 2004 EU member states called for the European Commission to produce “specific proposals to address the issue of Burmese illegal logging?” Later, in October, the European Council expressed support for the development of programmes to address, “the problem of non-sustainable, excessive logging” that resulted in deforestation in Burma. To date, the EU has done next to nothing. “Like China, the EU has so far failed the Burmese people. How many more livelihoods will be destroyed before the Commission and EU member states get their act together?” Asked Buckrell. It is essential that the Chinese government stops timber imports across the Burma-China border, with immediate effect, and until such time sufficient safeguards are in place that can guarantee legality of the timber supply. The Chinese authorities should also take action against companies and officials involved in the illegal trade. Global Witness is calling for the establishment of a working group to facilitate measures to combat illegal logging, to ensure equitable, transparent and sustainable forest management, and to promote long-term development in northern Burma. “It is vitally important that all stakeholders work together to end the rampant destruction of Burma’s forests and to ensure that the necessary aid and long-term investment reach this impoverished region.” Said Jon Buckrell. *-*

Illegal Logging Between Myanmar and China Declines

In 2009, Global Witness reported: "The illegal cross-border timber trade between Burma and China has decreased significantly since 2005. However, snake business' is widespread and the authorities in China should do more to clamp down, according to a new detailed review by the campaign group Global Witness. A Disharmonious Trade, the third in a series of reports on illegal logging in Burma, is based on field research carried out between 2005 and 2009 in Kachin State, along the Burma-China border, and on China's eastern seaboard. The field research is supported by an analysis of the latest trade data which shows that imports of logs and sawn wood across the land border from Burma fell by more than 70 percent between 2005 and 2008. However, 270,000 m3 of logs, and 170,000 m3 of sawn timber, were still imported into Kunming customs district in 2008, more than 90 percent of which was illegal. [Source: Global Witness, October 21, 2009 <^>]

“The decline in the illegal cross-border timber trade can be largely attributed to measures put in place by the Chinese authorities in 2005. At that time, an average of one truck carrying 15 tonnes of illegally logged timber crossed an official Chinese checkpoint every 7 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In stark contrast, Global Witness saw very few log trucks along the border during 2006-07 and 2009. However, some illicit trade continues, causing serious damage to the environment in Kachin State as the forest is cleared, often to make way for plantations. Timber is transported at night, official checkpoints avoided and documentation routinely falsified. In some instances, local enforcement agencies have turned a blind eye to smuggling; sources claim that corruption and bribery are rife. "Clearly action taken by authorities in China and Burma to combat illegal logging in Kachin state has had a significant positive impact. But they should do more to close down the remaining industry, which is almost wholly reliant on the illegal timber supply from Burma," said Jon Buckrell, Global Witness' Head of Forest Policy. "The Chinese government aspires to achieve a harmonious society' but the continued destruction of Burma's northern frontier forests, largely by Chinese companies, provides a striking counterpoint to that vision." <^>

“In late 2006 as part of their research, Global Witness investigators posed as buyers at flooring companies. At the time, thirteen out of 14 companies said that it was still possible for them to obtain timber from Burma across the land border despite import restrictions. These companies export timber throughout the world, including to Europe and America. A number of US-based companies are still advertising Burmese wood flooring on their websites despite the fact that the Lacey Act now bans commerce in illegally obtained timber and wood products. This is just part of a wider problem. Half of China's timber imports from all countries are probably illegal and China accounts for roughly a quarter of all illegal timber being traded internationally. Chinese timber exports account for 10 percent of the global trade in illegal timber. This has a knock-on effect for other countries. For example, the UK imports more illegal timber than any other EU country because it buys so much from China." <^>

Illegal Logging from Kachin State in Myanmar to China

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported: “ Since the late 1990s, neighbouring China has imported large volumes of timber from Myanmar, the bulk of which have been logged and traded illegally. In 1997, China imported 300,000 cubic meters of timber from Myanmar; by 2005 this had risen to 1.6 million cubic meters....In April 2012, EIA investigators travelled to the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Yunnan to examine current dynamics of the illicit cross-border trade in logs from Myanmar, especially Kachin State. The investigation involved monitoring crossing points on the Yunnan-Kachin border, surveying wholesale timber markets to assess the origin of wood supplies, and undercover meetings with Chinese firms trading and processing timber from Myanmar. [Source: Appetite for Destruction - China’s trade in illegal timber, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), November 29, 2012 ~]

“The investigation revealed continuing transport of logs across the border, despite the 2006 agreements between the two countries to halt such trade. Chinese traders confirmed that as long as taxes are paid at the point of import, logs are allowed in despite a commitment from the Yunnan provincial government to allow in only timber accompanied by documents from the Myanmar authorities attesting to its legal origin. As the authorities dictate that all wood exports must be handled by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise and shipped via Rangoon, logs moving across the land border to Yunnan cannot possibly be legal. Field visits uncovered movement of temperate hardwood timber species from the mountains of Kachin State into central Yunnan via several crossing points, with trade in teak and rosewood centerd around the border town of Ruili further south. ~

“The contrast in the condition of the forests along the border was striking; while forests in the mountainous region on the Chinese side of the border are relatively intact, with large areas protected in the Gaoligong Nature Reserve, across the border in Kachin the devastation wreaked by logging is clearly visible. Chinese wood traders confirmed that supplies were coming from further inside Kachin, as timber within a hundred kilometers of the border has been logged out, and told how deals are done with insurgent groups to buy up entire mountains for logging. One local community elder in Kachin interviewed by EIA summed up the situation: “Myanmar is China’s supermarket and Kachin State is their 7-11.” ~

Lifting Sanctions Could Result in Plundering of Myanmar’s Forests

Jeremy Hance of mongabay.com wrote: “The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warns that the end of sanctions presents Myanmar and the world with a choice: further plundering of the country's forests for outside markets or large-scale forestry reform. "After half a century of corruption and rule by the military and their business associates, Burma simply has no credible infrastructure through which we can verify the legality and sustainability of its timber exports," explains EIA Head of Forests Faith Doherty in a press release. “Reforms must lead to the very infrastructure needed to ensure the invaluable resources of the country’s forests are not squandered for the financial gain of a few." [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, April 26, 2012 ///]

"Illegal logging and destructive forest conversion are hand-in-hand with corruption, crime, cronyism and a multitude of other societal ills suffered by the people of Burma for so long," says Doherty. Logging has also raised conflict between local ethnic groups and the Myanmar government, an issue that the EIA says could lead to government instability at this crucial time. "There are no safeguards at all in place in Burma. Its forests are in crisis, as are the people who rely on them for their livelihoods and as a life-sustaining resource," says Doherty. "Burma needs help, and addressing the timber trade without acknowledging the serious governance challenges that come with it would be a massive opportunity lost." ///

Myanmar Forest Information and Data

According to the U.N. FAO, 48.3 percent or about 31,773,000 ha of Myanmar is forested, according to FAO. Of this 10.0 percent (3,192,000) is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. Myanmar had 988,000 ha of planted forest. Change in Forest Cover: Between 1990 and 2010, Myanmar lost an average of 372,250 ha or 0.95 percent per year. In total, between 1990 and 2010, Myanmar lost 19.0 percent of its forest cover, or around 7,445,000 ha. Myanmar's forests contain 1,654 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass. Biodiversity and Protected Areas: Myanmar has some 1709 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Center. Of these, 4.7 percent are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 5.9 percent are threatened. Myanmar is home to at least 7000 species of vascular plants, of which 15.3 percent are endemic. 0.3 percent of Myanmar is protected under IUCN categories [Source: Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay.com, March 3, 2012]

MYANMAR: FOREST COVER, 2010; Total Land Area (1000 square kilometers): 65755; Total Forest Area (1000 ha): 31773; Percent Forest Cover: 48; Primary Forest Cover (1000 ha): 3192; Primary Forest, percent total forest: 10; Other wooded land (1000 ha): 20113; Percent other wooded land: 31. Myanmar: Breakdown of forest types, 2010; Primary forest (1000 ha | percent of forest area): 3192: 10; Other naturally regenerated forest (1000 ha | percent of forest area): 27593: 87; Planted Forest (1000 ha | percent of forest area): 988: 3.

MYANMAR: TRENDS IN TOTAL (NET) FOREST COVER, 1990-2010: TOTAL FOREST COVER (1000 ha): 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010: 39218, 34868, 33321, 31773. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (1000 ha); Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010 : -435, -309, -310. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (percent); Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: -1.17, -0.90, -0.95.

MYANMAR: TRENDS IN NATURAL FOREST COVER (DEFORESTATION), 1990-2010; FOREST COVER (excluding planted forests) (1000 ha): 1990: 2000, 2005, 2010: 38824, 34172, 32472, 30785. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (1000 ha): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000: 2000-2005: 2005-2010: -465: -465: -339. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (percent): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: -1.2, -1.2, -0.99 .

MYANMAR: TRENDS IN PRIMARY OR OLD GROWTH FOREST COVER, 1990-2010; PRIMARY FOREST COVER (1000 ha): 1990: 2000: 2005: 2010; 3192: 3192: 3192: 3192: ; ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (1000 ha): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: 0,0 0, 0. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (percent): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: 0, 0, 0.

MYANMAR: TRENDS IN PLANTED FOREST COVER, 1990-2010; PLANTED FOREST COVER (1000 ha): 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010: 394, 696, 849, 988: ; ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (1000 ha): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: 30, 31, 28. ANNUAL CHANGE RATE (percent): Negative number represents deforestation: 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010: 5.85, 4.05, 3.08.

CARBON STOCK IN LIVING FOREST BIOMASS; (million metric tons); 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2040: 1814: 1734: 1654; CARBON STOCK IN LIVING FOREST BIOMASS; (per hectare in tons) 2000: 52. ANNUAL CHANGE; (1 000 t/yr); 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010: -23, -16, -16.

MYANMAR: TRENDS IN REMOVALS OF WOOD PRODUCTS 1990-2005: INDUSTRIAL ROUNDWOOD; Total volume (1 000 m3 over bark): 1990, 2000, 2005: 3397, 3604, 3880. WOODFUEL; Total volume (1 000 m3 over bark): 1990, 2000, 2005: 35687: 37104, 39180.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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