Rampant plunder of Myanmar timber

Trucks carrying timber at the Myanmar-China border. The Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency says traders are decimating the forests of the restive Kachin state, in one of the largest cross-border illegal timber flows in the world amounti
Trucks carrying timber at the Myanmar-China border. The Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency says traders are decimating the forests of the restive Kachin state, in one of the largest cross-border illegal timber flows in the world amounting to millions of dollars annually.PHOTO: ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY

Environmental body presses China to curb illegal imports as mountains are sold for gold

China has been urged to tighten controls on rampant illegal timber imports across its over 2,000 km-long border with Myanmar.

Myanmar's restive northern Kachin state on China's border is being plundered by timber traders who buy entire mountains, paying sometimes in gold bars, and are decimating the country's forests in one of the largest cross-border illegal timber flows in the world amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Timber is also being sourced from deeper inside Myanmar, says a 24-page report on the Myanmar-China illegal timber trade, released yesterday in Beijing by the Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

"Kachin and Yunnan province in China are at the heart of trade but stolen timber is increasingly being sourced from deeper within Myanmar to feed factories in south and east China," says the report - a product of several investigative trips in the area since 2012.

"The bulk of the timber moving across the border is now high-value species of rosewood and teak."  

Most timber entering neighbouring Yunnan province is either cut in or transported through Kachin. It is facilitated by a complex web of warlords, intermediaries, officials and business people.

"All parties profit… from shady Chinese businesses paying in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains to the official corruption which allows the timber to pass through various checkpoints," the report says.

In theory, Myanmar's legal framework and tracing system for timber are sound, the EIA said. But in reality, Naypyitaw has little or no control over vast swathes of border states.  For example, the military controls only around 60 per cent of Kachin. The rest is controlled by various armed groups, which levy taxes on trade passing through their territory. These illegal armed groups grant logging rights, which are not recognised under national law.

The kingpins of the trade are a handful of wealthy and well-connected local business people from both sides of the border, some of whom are named in the report.

The trade is an irritant in Myanmar-China relations. The report cited Myanmar government officials complaining that China did not do enough to stop the trade.

In January this year, Myanmar's army raided an illegal logging operation in Kachin, arresting 155 Chinese loggers who in July were given long jail sentences. The arrests were seen as a warning signal to both the Kachin armed groups and the Chinese logging groups. But the detainees were freed only days later as part of a wider annual presidential pardon, and back-room negotiations with China.

The Greater Mekong subregion, comprising Myanmar, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, is projected to lose a cumulative 30 million ha of forest by 2030, mostly to illegal logging, commercial plantation, agriculture and urban infrastructure development.

Myanmar alone lost 1.7 million ha of forest cover between 2001 and 2013. Regardless of its origin or where it crosses into China, once timber enters China, it is considered legal for trade and distribution provided all entry taxes have been paid.

The Yunnan authorities have periodically imposed curbs from 2006. But "by 2013, trade in timber products between Myanmar and China reached a record level of 1.7 million cubic metres, worth US$621 million'', the EIA revealed.

A meeting between Myanmar and Chinese forestry officials on Sept 24 presents an opportunity to tighten controls, the EIA observed. China as the main market, must prohibit import of timber deemed illegal by the Myanmar government, and investigate corrupt business groups, the EIA urged. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2015, with the headline 'Rampant plunder of Myanmar timber'. Print Edition | Subscribe