Illegal timber trading draining Myanmar of its forests

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

As forests in Kachin state are depleted, timber is also being sourced from deeper inside Myanmar, says a new report on the Myanmar-China illegal timber trade, released on Thursday (Sept 17) morning in Beijing by the UK-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. The bulk of the timber moving across the border is now high value species of rosewood and teak'' says the 24-page report, a product of several investigative trips in the area since 2012.

 Most timber entering the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan, is either cut in or transported through Kachin state.

"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.

 At stake are some of the most ecologically important remaining forests in South-East Asia; the Greater Mekong Subregion which includes Myanmar is projected to lose a cummulative 30 million hectares by 2030, mostly to the expansion of illegal logging, commercial plantation agriculture, and urban infrastructure development.

 Myanmar alone lost a total of 1.7 million hectares of forest cover between 2001 and 2013. With forests in Thailand and Vietnam largely denuded outside protected areas, those two countries are also hungry markets for Myanmar's timber. But with a land border of more than 2,000 kilometres with China, its massive neighbour to the north is the main market.

 In theory, Myanmar's legal framework and tracing system for timber are sound, the EIA said. But the political reality is that Naypyitaw has little or no control over vast swathes of border states.

For example, the military controls only around 60 per cent of Kachin state. The rest is controlled by Kachin armed groups, which levy taxes on trade through their territory. Local armed groups grant logging rights - which is illegal under national law. The trade is controlled by enormously wealthy and well-connected local businessmen and women, some of whom are named in the EIA report.

Myanmar banned the export of raw logs in April 2014. In January 2015, Myanmar's army raided an illegal logging operation in Kachin state, arresting 155 Chinese loggers who were in July given long jail sentences - but freed only days later as part of a wider annual presidential pardon.

 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. One single company, Jinxing Trading, was China's biggest importer of the increasingly rare rosewood from Myanmar in 2014 - to the tune of 34,274 tonnes, according to official customs documents.

 The report cited Myanmar government officials complaining that Chia did not do enough to stop the trade. China as the main market must tighten its regulations, prohibit import of timber deemed illegal by the Myanmar government, and investigate corrupt business groups, the EIA said.