Myanmar government’s changing priorities put forests at risk

RISKING both the state of the country's environment and its own relations with indigenous local people, Myanmar's government is allowing millions of acres of forest to be used for agribusiness, mostly for the benefit of a few well-connected business elites, a new report warns.

This has meant that "conversion timber" harvested in the process of clearing forests for plantations may be passed off as legal timber. In addition, wider issues like land rights, and whether there has been corruption and cronyism in allocating timber concessions, are not adequately addressed.

Foreign buyers of timber products from Myanmar therefore need "much more due diligence" to establish the provenance of timber under trade agreements with the Myanmar government that insist on certification that timber has been harvested legally and sustainably, Mr Kevin Woods, author of the report for the US-based non-profit conservation group Forest Trends, told The Straits Times.

"It is clear that the legality approach alone does not stem deforestation, either through agribusiness or logging," Mr Woods said in a telephone interview.

The 76-page report on conversion timber is the product of two years of research and, in most cases, cites the government's data.

It says the government has set aside "at least 5.2 million acres and has identified another 11 million acres of some of South-east Asia's last remaining biodiversity-rich high-value forests… to make way for large-scale, private agribusiness projects".

This is a 170 per cent increase in land slated for agribusiness - much of it under forest cover - since Myanmar's new government took office in 2011.

The rush to convert forests to plantations is destroying biodiversity and fuelling conflict by driving locals off their land, says the report, titled Commercial Agricultural Expansion In Myanmar: Links To Deforestation, Conversion Timber, And Land Conflicts.

"Local communities lose land, wildlife habitat is destroyed and carbon emissions increase, while elite businessmen with strong connections to military-state officials profit," it says.

"The legality of timber harvested from cleared lands is questionable and difficult to verify, with land concession allocations highly susceptible to corruption and patronage politics."

The report focuses particularly on oil palm, for which 35 per cent of all agribusiness concession areas has been allocated.

All Myanmar's oil palm concessions are located in just one region, Tanintharyi, formerly Tenasserim, in southern Myanmar, where nearly 70,000 acres of rainforests had been cleared or burned in 2010 and 2011 to make space for the crop.

According to the report, Myanmar's oil palm concessions are owned by about 40 Myanmar businesses with strong ties to political and military leaders, the Ministry of Industry and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, the last being the military's business and investment arm.

One example is the Yuzana Company, owned by Mr Htay Myint, who in various other reports was said to be close to the former military regime's intelligence chief general Khin Nyunt, who was jailed for corruption in 2004 and released in 2012.

According to government data, Yuzana Company - which has also been controversially clearing forest in Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve in the northern Kachin State - has cleared the most forest for oil palm concessions at 25,000 acres in 2010 and 2011.

Partly underpinning the rush to convert forests is a shift in priorities which has left the once-powerful Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (Moecaf) playing second fiddle to the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MOAI). MOAI is run by Mr Myint Hlaing, a powerful former lieutenant general and air defence chief.

With large-scale agricultural development seen as a driver of economic growth, the "MOAI has risen in prestige and power, and Moecaf's long-held authority and control over vast areas of forested land in the country is now being challenged", said Mr Woods.

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