The Burmese government’s plan to completely ban the export of timber in 2014 in a bid to stop the destruction of the country’s forests and their unique wildlife has been welcomed by conservationists. But illegal logging to feed China’s furniture factories and poaching for traditional medicine markets will be difficult to stop, they add.
A ban on exports—earning 10 percent of Burma’s foreign revenue in 2006, according to the European Forest Institute (EFI)—is being imposed to both protect remaining forests and develop a sustainable hardwood export market, claims Naypyidaw.
Burma is currently one of the world’s biggest exporters of teak, but excessive legal harvesting of timber, illegal logging and the combined effects of felling for firewood and slash-and-burn agriculture are taking a heavy toll, said the parliamentary Natural Resources and Environment Conservation Committee.
The problem is that the high standard of management of Burma’s forests that existed in the first half of the 20th century has been eroded during five decades of military junta rule.
Inadequate data and plain mismanagement currently make it difficult to properly assess the industry, say analysts and NGOs.
Burma officially earned more than US $600 million exporting 864,000 metric tons of timber in the 2010-2011 financial year, according to the Central Statistical Organization. India was the biggest buyer, with Japan and Thailand also leading markets.
All timber shipped out of Rangoon’s ports is stamped as approved by the state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE)—making legal shipments out of material which was probably cut and transported illegally, said a recent detailed study by the EFI.
“Figures for [Burma’s] forest products trade are unreliable, often contradictory and do not include nonofficial exports (‘illegal’), including cross-border trade, which has been substantial in the past, especially along the Yunnan (China) border,” said the report.
The Global Witness NGO calculated that at least one million cubic meters of timber was illegally shipped into China in the peak year of 2002.
The MTE is tainted just like the Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise because of its links with previous military regimes. The EFI study identifies well-known crony companies as holding MTE logging contracts, including Max Myanmar, Htoo Trading and Asia World.
“The on-going unsustainable forestry, mining, agricultural and fishing practices [in Burma] is resulting in environmental degradation and direct biodiversity loss,” warns the Rangoon-based Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA).
“People whose livelihoods depend most on natural resources are affected by the effects of deforestation—floods, droughts and landslides—and are more vulnerable to natural disasters.”
There is even some uncertainty as to how much forest Burma still has. In 2005, forest cover was estimated to be well in excess of 50 percent. Two foreign studies within the past year—one by noted magazine Science and the other by the UN—put forest cover at between 46 and 48 percent of the country. But in August, the Burmese Parliament’s Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee Secretary Thein Lwin said it was only 24 percent.
Nevertheless, around 70 percent of Burma’s rural population of at least 30 million “depend heavily on forests for their basic needs,” according to a UN Food and Agricultural Organization report in 2009. Half-a-million rely on forests for employment.
“Despite their high dependence on natural resources, local people have been excluded from decisions concerning the country’s protected areas, yet this situation is slowly changing,” said the Fauna and Flora International (FFI). “For the first time grass roots organizations are being established to address issues of environmental governance and human welfare.”
FFI is the most optimistic international NGO working with the Burmese authorities to try to improve management and conservation and has a campaign coordinator in Burma who has just taken part in discussions with government forestry officials.
“I witnessed serious reform commitment by the Forest Department that covers initiatives ranging from forest law enforcement, governance and trade, sustainable forest management [and] a greater participation of local communities in the forestry sector,” Frank Momberg told The Irrawaddy.
“The log export ban will have a very positive impact on stopping illegal logging especially in border regions as the ban provides a clear legal basis that defines that all trans-border log movements are illegal. I expect that this will reduce illegal logging by Chinese companies in northeast Kachin State,” he said.
“Until the new log ban is in place it is important to develop improved national timber legality standards, forest law enforcement, governance and trade policies and regulation.”
The FFI, based in Cambridge, England, operates in dozens of countries but says Burma’s still-intact large tracts of forest are home to a wealth of biodiversity, some of which is only now being discovered as Western researchers venture into the country following decades of isolation.
The FFI played a leading role in discovering the rare snub-nosed monkey in 2010. It is believed to only exist in Kachin State and possibly just over the Sino-Burmese border, and has been geographically isolated between the Mekong and Salween Rivers.
But without an efficient and incorruptible forest management and warden policing system, Burma’s forests are likely to fall prey to the regional trade in rare animals and plants to supply Asian traditional medicine market.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Other organisations think it could be higher still. “Controlled by organized international crime syndicates, the value of the illegal wildlife trade is estimated at $10-20 billion annually by some experts,” the Bangkok-based anti-wildlife-trading NGO Freeland Foundation said recently.
“Despite national and international laws designed to protect endangered species, almost all wild species are traded,” said Freeland. “Big cats, pangolins, reptiles, birds, elephant ivory and illegal timber are traded illegally in large quantities. This illegal trade is driven by demand for rare plants, bones, scales and other ingredients for traditional medicines.”