Mongabay: Myanmar’s logging ban feeds shadow economy of illegal trade

Sitting in a shop on the riverfront in Mandalay just last week, Win Nyunt assessed whether it was safe to hide a ton of illegally logged teak in a nearby monastery at midnight.

“If I put the logs in the monastery it is safer, but I don’t like to do that because I am a religious guy. I don’t want to mix business with religion,” the teak trader told Mongabay about his work in Myanmar’s second largest city.

Normally Win Nyunt would keep the 2,200 pounds of Burmese hardwood logs at his home, but needed to make an exception with his latest boatload because of increased police activity.

“I have never seen this kind of restriction in my life, this is the worst,” said Win Nyunt.

Mandalay's riverfront, where many of the illegal logs are brought to the city
Mandalay’s riverfront, where many of the illegal logs are brought to the city

There’s good reason for the pressure.

Myanmar has the third highest rate of deforestation in the world. As part of an attempt to arrest the catastrophic annual forest loss of 1.8 percent, the country is in the midst of a logging ban set to end next year.

Shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power in Myanmar in April 2016, a temporary ban on all logging was brought into force.

For the duration of the ban, which runs into April 2017, any demand for wood is expected to be met through stockpiled wood controlled by the government’s logging entity Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).

The ban is seen as a way to not only protect Myanmar’s forests but to save lives. In 2012 the UN ranked Myanmar as the Asian Pacific country most at risk from natural disasters – including floods and landslides which are exacerbated by deforestation.

The country lost 546,000 hectares of forest on average each year between 2010 and 2015, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says in their most recent assessment. Between 1990 and 2015, nearly 15 million hectares of forest and wooded land disappeared.

Prized trees

Officials are stretched thin in their attempts to stop illegal logging across the many miles of Myanmar’s rugged terrain – some of which is only accessible by motorbike or hiking. Riverside cities that serve as hubs to move illegally logged products are somewhat easier pickings for targeted busts.

The vast majority of timber and logs are on their way to China.

Maung Maung U, an environmentalist with the civil society organisation Sein Yaung Soe, says the issue of deforestation is particularly severe in Mandalay.

“Before 1988, 52 percent of the Mandalay area was forest, now it is just around 20 percent,” he said.

Vast numbers of trees have been cut down and exported, often to China, since Myanmar began emerging from economic isolation in 2011. Teak is the most common target as well as Burmese rosewood – a popular material for high-end furniture. Rosewood can go for $50,000 per cubic meter on the open market in China.

“All of the good teak from the forest is gone now, we just have bush,” said Maung Maung U. “The country is overrun by bush.”

A particularly decisive year was 2014. In April 2014, the Burmese government banned the export of all raw timber but illegal loggers continued to export huge amounts to China.

Last month Myanmar’s minister for natural resources and conservation, U Ohn Win, said that in 2014 “more than one million cubic tons of timber was illegally exported to China’s Yunnan Province from the far north of Myanmar” adding that it accounted for 95 percent of all timber exports.

But it is not only export that has decreased Myanmar’s forests but also domestic use in a country that is heavily dependent on wood as a natural resource.

“Every wood is used for everything,” said Maung Maung U, citing timber’s use in home building, furniture and making fires for cooking on. “Even our chairs are made from bamboo.”

Necessary risks

Getting caught involved in illegal logging can carry a harsh prison sentence, but Mandalay timber trader Win Myint says it is not going to stop him.

“I am afraid (of getting arrested) but I have to keep going because this is my living,” he said.

Win Myint buys the teak from local loggers on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, upstream from Mandalay. He brings a ton of teak, cut into boards, to Mandalay each week which he can sell for 12 lakhs or 1.2m Burmese kyat ($930).

The teak is transported by boat which he says he hids by covering it up with various items, such as bags of concrete. Another popular method is to hide teak under bamboo on one of the large rafts often seen on the Irrawaddy.

But Win Myint’s current batch of teak is currently moored on the riverbank north of Mandalay, waiting for him to call and tell the crew that the coast is clear.

Looking over the docks last week, Win Myint says the river is currently quieter than usual. Down the sloping bank, past garbage and pieces of scrap wood, bamboo rafts and tugboats jostle for position with ferries taking foreigners to the nearby tourist hotspot of Bagan.

According to Win Myint, typical river traffic without the current police crackdown is about 30 percent contraband material.

“Normally if you were standing here and you could see ten boats on the river, three of them would be carrying the (illegal) logs,” he said.

Brokering deals

Win Myint’s teak is among the material sold into Mandalay’s furniture-making industry. In downtown Mandalay, furniture shop owner Daw Sandar (who declined to give her real name) says “everyone” in Mandalay’s furniture business uses illegal wood. She said buying from government-sourced MTE costs too much.

“We have to take a risk that we might be arrested to buy from the illegal loggers but it (MTE wood) is expensive – if you bought from them you would have to sell the furniture at a higher price,” she said.

Daw Sandar does not get her teak from Win Myint, preferring the cheaper option of buying the timber rather than wood that has been cut into boards. She pays ten lakhs ($775) for between one-and-a-half to two tons. She says if she went to MTE the most she would get is one metric ton for that price.

“Nobody buys from them,” she says. “Maybe that is why they brought in the ban.”

A furniture shop in downtown Mandalay. many of the furniture shops use illegally-sourced wood.
A furniture shop in downtown Mandalay. many of the furniture shops use illegally-sourced wood.

Daw Sandar says the teak she buys from the river comes from the villages of Kani and Singgu, on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy rivers respectively, to the north of Mandalay. Some of the teak also comes from Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin state.

The “forest has to be protected,” she says, but argues that the current ban “does not work for everyone.”

“That is why illegal logging still exists,” she said. “If the government sells at a fair price that would be very good.”

According to environmentalist Maung Maung U, the price of official timber has been increasing since the ban was brought in – because of a lack of supply – and is now at 14 lakhs per ton ($1,090).

Bribes for safe passage

Not all law enforcement efforts are having an impact. Daw Sandar adds that she is not afraid of being arrested because if the police do catch you, they will normally take “tea money” – a Burmese term for small bribes paid to officials.

“They hang around to get the money, you just have to pay three to five dollars for each policeman,” she explains.

“But if there is a special investigation into illegal logging then you can’t pay – then they arrest you and confiscate all your teak.”

Win Myint also says he pays bribes – but as someone who works in the illegal logging business, as opposed to buying from it, his bribes are higher. He is not just paying policemen but also officials from Myanmar’s Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF) – the government department designated to enforce the logging ban.

“It (bribes) is the main expense in my business,” he told Mongabay. “It costs me three or four lakhs ($230 – $310) to buy the logs (from local loggers). The cost of the bribes is twice that.”

Even before this year’s logging ban, corruption was contributing to deforestation, environmentalist Maung Maung U says.

“The illegal loggers and government officials cooperate,” he said. “If you get permission to cut 10 acres (of trees) if you pay money to government officials you can add ‘0’s. It can go to 100 acres or 1,000 acres.”

Representatives from MOECAF, which oversees MTE, declined to comment on any aspect of the ban or the current situation with the logging industry.

Government pressure

Officials have vowed to keep cracking down.

Lieutenant Colonel Sein Tun, head of police in Mandalay division, said the force is “seriously taking action” against its officers who take bribes.

“If someone can give evidence of the corruption of the police then we will take action against those police,” he said.

He said the police force is working “seriously and strictly” to arrest illegal loggers and that between April and mid-October there have been 24 cases, currently in court, of illegal logging. According to Sein Tun, police have also seized nearly 100 tons of illegally logged wood in that time.

He said that in four instances they found stashes of timber hidden in monasteries.

Life and death danger

But dealing with illegal loggers can also be dangerous. In May a forestry department official was widely reported to have been killed trying to arrest some illegal loggers, according to a government statement. There have been other reports of violence against forestry officials.

After the killing in May, U Kyaw Oo, a Member of Parliament (MP) representing a northern Mandalay region traveled to the area where it happened. He traversed the area around the Se Daw Gyi lake to the north of Mandalay to investigate the situation.

“I was pretending to be a teak trader,” he told Mongabay. U Kyaw Oo said on his trip he saw “huge” piles of teak and other woods hidden in the banks of the lake. He said he saw boats laden with logs passing by every seven minutes, heading for the river that leads to Mandalay.

He also spoke with the illegal loggers.

“They said to me: ‘700 to 1,000 people are depending on this illegal logging business. If we cannot do this business we will have no jobs. We will have nothing to eat’.”

The MP believes the logging ban is a good thing “because we have to stop the flooding,” but says its success will depend on tackling corruption.

“To get from there (Se Daw Gyi) to Mandalay they have to go through 12 checkpoints,” he said. “They pay $10 (in bribes) at each gate so it is $120 to get to Mandalay.” He believes stricter law enforcement is the key.

“We have to get rid of corruption and we need the rule of law.”

The MP presented findings from his undercover trip in Mandalay’s regional parliament at the end of September. He was told by regional minister Colonel Myo Min Aung that there was no illegal logging happening in the area he visited.

“There are no illegal sawmills, or illegal extraction of timber,” Colonel Aung was quoted as saying in local newspaper Myanmar Times. He also denied that there were 12 checkpoints the loggers had to pass through and said the MP could have been mistaken about what he saw at Se Daw Gyi.

At least two checkpoints have been confirmed to Mongabay through a local media worker.

The MP says he is not mistaken about what he saw, but says that since he spoke in parliament the illegal logging operations in Se Daw Gyi have stopped.

Myanmar’s government has said it is “accelerating” its efforts to stop illegal logging. Since the ban came in the government has also announced a clampdown on the illegal import of chainsaws.

Last week MOECAF unveiled a plan for four “forest farms”, spanning 350,000 acres, where teak and other trees will be grown. The plan, to run for ten years, is a bid to counter decades of logging.

Illegal timber trader Win Myint welcomes the government’s efforts to protect the forest – but does not see his business as part of the problem.

“The media is always saying that the natural disasters are caused by deforestation so that is why I agree (with the ban),” he said.

“But I am just doing a little bit inside the country, the amount is not that much.”

Read the article at Mongabay.

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