Myanmar’s illegal timber trade continues despite COVID-19

Log trucks line up in Myanmar’s Kachin State to smuggle logs to China’s Yunnan Province in April 2018. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency.

As authorities in Myanmar seized over 800 tons of illegal timber in early April, the country’s profitable illicit logging industry continues despite disruptions to trade and economies across Southeast Asia.

By Skylar Lindsay

As COVID-19 spreads and paralyzes many industries, Myanmar continues to see a flood of illegal logging. On April 9, two weeks after the country confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, the country’s Forest Department announced that authorities seized over 840 tons of illegal timber in the course of a single week.

Much of the timber logged illegally in Myanmar is transported overland to China, in violation of both countries’ domestic laws. Despite disruptions to overland trade, the illicit industry now continues—driving deforestation, threatening local livelihoods and supporting organized crime.

Logging is a profitable business in Myanmar, home to much of the world’s remaining teak supply. The trade was a major source of revenue for the country’s military dictatorships and linked to years of human rights violations by the country’s military, especially in conflict areas like Karen State and around development projects like oil and gas pipelines. The military provided security for international energy firms like Chevron and Total and took the opportunity to use forced labour and extortion to turn a profit on teak and other valuable timber.

Under the country’s new democracy, the trade continues to be the target of accusations of corruption and rights violations. State-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) has run the logging industry since 1989. Recent investigations allege that MTE is involved in a system of bribery and subcontracting that allows illegal exports of mislabeled teak, violating both Myanmar law and laws in the European Union and US on timber imports.

Regardless, illegal logging continues to drive deforestation, deeply impacting the country’s ecosystems and threatening local livelihoods. High profits from the illegal trade also make it difficult to address the role of natural resources in Myanmar’s civil wars, as ethnic armed groups and communities across the country emphasize “resource federalism” and local control of water and land.

Myanmar and China tighten regulations but illegal logging and corruption continue

Under Myanmar law, all timber exports must pass through Yangon and timber trade across land borders is illegal. But Chinese customs data suggest that nearly all wood from Myanmar enters the country through overland trade. Traders in China confirmed to an environmental organization that 95% of Myanmar teak entering the country comes overland. 

In 2014, Myanmar banned exports of raw teak logs, prompting a dip in teak exports as the industry adapted and exporters found ways around the new law. China has also instituted new measures in recent years that have slowed the trade. 

But in recent years, the illegal logging trade between Myanmar’s Kachin State and China’s Yunnan Province has still been valued at $600 million per year.

Authorities on both sides of the border have attempted to crack down on the trade. In the 2019-2020 financial year, the Myanmar Forest Department reportedly seized over 44,000 tons of illegal timber. 

Chinese authorities also reported major seizures, including from a number of raids in Yunnan Province in July and August 2019 that netted over 100,000 tons of teak and rosewood timber. Following those raids, the trade reportedly slowed but has continued during the pandemic.

The Myanmar government often blames ethnic armed organizations for driving the country’s illegal timber trade. But a recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) suggests that this is far from the truth.

“Our findings also put paid to the constant refrain and official lie that the only illegal timber trade in Myanmar is being carried out by armed ethnic organisations in conflict with the state when the reality is that it has been, and is, conducted with the knowledge and active participation of key figures in the government,” said Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaigns Leader.

MTE has denied accusations that it’s involved in bribery or an off-the-books system for trading teak and other timber.

Illegal logging drives confusion and finger pointing over deforestation

The logging trade is also a major driver of deforestation, which impacts local communities living in and around the country’s largest forest areas, all of which are located in ethnic states and regions. Most of these—including Kachin, Shan and Karen states—are conflict zones that have seen decades of war. From 2010 to 2015, Myanmar had one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, outpaced only by Brazil and Indonesia. The country was losing 1.3 million acres of forest per year.

According to Win Myo Thu, co-founder of Yangon-based environmental group ECODEV/ALARM, Myanmar adopted relatively sustainable forest management techniques under British colonial rule. Using what was known as the Burma Selection System, the colonizers sought to maximize their teak harvests without reducing the supply, through methods like logging on a 30-year rotational cycle. When the country gained independence in 1948, it is estimated that forests still covered up to 75% of the country’s land area.

But in 1988, the dictatorship at the time, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), opened the timber industry up to the private sector and the country’s deforestation rate more than quadrupled. The military government also allowed Thai timber companies to log inside Myanmar after the Thai government banned logging in natural forests in 1989. 

Since then, the country has lost more than 20% of its forests. This period also saw logging take off in Sagaing region, fueled in part by demand across the border in India. As the Myanmar government began to acknowledge its deforestation problem in the 1990s, it blamed “slash-and-burn” shifting cultivation practices of local ethnic farmers.

Data from ECODEV, however, shows that in Mon and Karen states and Tanintharyi region, areas controlled by ethnic armed groups saw less deforestation from 2002-2014 than areas controlled by the government, though rebel groups’ approaches to sustainability vary. As far as monitoring the government’s progress on deforestation, the Myanmar Forest Department administers around 30% of the country’s land but shares no data on deforestation or loss of forest cover. 

A report from the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative points to conflicting data from the Forest Department and MTE to show that overlogging is the norm and officials are still struggling to manage the trade.

Deforestation and illegal logging continue to pose a major threat to livelihoods and ecosystems in Myanmar despite the government’s efforts. Depending on who you ask, the Forestry Department is now either struggling to enforce well-intentioned laws or still facilitating a lucrative illicit business. As COVID-19 shakes most industries and disrupts overland trade in Southeast Asia, illegal logging continues in Myanmar, with timber and logs destined for international markets.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the environment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.