Rangers and log­gers face off in Bago moun­tains

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - HTET KHAUNG LINN news­room@mm­times.com

As the NLD gov­ern­ment steps up ef­forts to pro­tect Myan­mar’s forests, of­fi­cers in the Bago Range are con­fronted with in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent log­gers.

SEV­ERAL for­est rangers and po­lice were man­ning a sleepy check­point on a dirt road near Myo Kaung Vil­lage, in the foothills of the Bago Moun­tain Range, on a re­cent July af­ter­noon.

Though Sein Kant Lant check­point is not much more than a metal bar block­ing the road and a small of­fice build­ing sur­rounded by piles of logs, this is a front-line po­si­tion in the gov­ern­ment’s bat­tle against ram­pant il­le­gal log­ging.

Some of­fi­cials were armed and the at­mos­phere was tense as they re­called re­cent op­er­a­tions against log­gers. The post, lo­cated some 15 kilo­me­tres (9.3 miles) west of the Yan­gon-Nay Pyi Taw high­way in Kyauk­taga town­ship, sits at a junc­tion of dirt roads that lead into the Bago Range and past for­est re­serves, mak­ing it an im­por­tant tim­ber-smug­gling route.

For­est ranger San Yu said that in June a team of 22 un­armed For­est Depart­ment of­fi­cials from Bago Re­gion’s Kyauk­taga and Nyaung Lay Pin town­ships went on a night-time pa­trol and spot­ted four men load­ing a truck with tim­ber some 10km from the check­point.

As of­fi­cials ap­proached to ap­pre­hend them, the log­gers sped off, then jumped from the truck a few kilo­me­tres down the road and set the wood on fire. The log­gers used sling­shots and knives to at­tack the rangers who were in pur­suit, and man­aged to es­cape into the night. Two of the rangers sus­tained mi­nor in­juries in the at­tack.

“We did not carry any weapons,” San Yu said. “I was trans­ferred here eight months ago and this is the very first time I saw for­est of­fi­cers vi­o­lently at­tacked by log­gers. It was shock­ing.”

Since then, Bago Re­gion au­thor­i­ties have sent 10 armed of­fi­cers from the For­est Po­lice, a unit un­der the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs, to Sein Kant Lant check­point to help the rangers and strengthen op­er­a­tions against log­gers.

San Yu said, how­ever, that brazen acts by log­gers had not stopped. “Even af­ter we en­forced se­cu­rity, an il­le­gal log­ging truck tried to es­cape from our of­fi­cers by crash­ing through the metal bar at our check­point. But they were ar­rested af­ter a [For­est Po­lice] of­fi­cer shot one of their tyres,” he said.

A gov­ern­ment push to pro­tect forests Myan­mar’s forests were heav­ily logged in re­cent decades by tim­ber and agribusi­ness com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing with gov­ern­ment ap­proval, and by gangs of il­le­gal log­gers. Huge for­est ar­eas in Kachin State, Sa­gaing Re­gion, Tanintharyi Re­gion, and the Arakan and Bago ranges dis­ap­peared, and bil­lions of dol­lars worth of tim­ber flowed out un­reg­u­lated to neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists have es­ti­mated.

Both mil­i­tary units and eth­nic rebels re­port­edly taxed the tim­ber smug­gling in eth­nic ar­eas, while gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion at var­i­ous lev­els fa­cil­i­tates the plun­der of the forests. De­spite ini­tial ef­forts of the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment to reign in de­for­esta­tion, forests con­tinue to rapidly dis­ap­pear.

The UK-based En­vi­ron­men­tal In­ves­ti­ga­tion Agency said in a 2015 re­port that an es­ti­mated 1.7 mil­lion hectares (4.2 mil­lion acres) of for­est was lost from 2001 to 2013. Myan­mar still re­tains one of the high­est for­est cov­ers in South­east Asia at about 50 per­cent, but also has one of its high­est an­nual de­for­esta­tion rates at around 2pc, the group said.

The Na­tional League for Democ­racy gov­ern­ment has stated it will pri­ori­tise bet­ter man­age­ment of forests, rivers and nat­u­ral re­sources. It pro­posed a one-year mora­to­rium on log­ging in ma­jor for­est ar­eas and re­cently the Min­istry of Re­sources and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion is­sued a 10-year log­ging ban for the Bago Range, in recog­ni­tion of the dire sit­u­a­tion of its forests.

The 475km stretch of moun­tains in cen­tral Myan­mar was once densely forested and pop­u­lated with wildlife, but now faces some of the worst log­ging and poach­ing in the coun­try.

Min­is­ter of Re­sources and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion U Ohn Win told par­lia­ment on July 29 that gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions against log­gers had in­creased in the past six months and net­ted 15,000 tonnes of il­le­gal tim­ber, in­clud­ing 1274 tonnes in Bago Re­gion.

U Myo Min, a spokesper­son for the Min­istry of Re­sources and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion, said around 600 For­est Depart­ment of­fi­cials were tasked with pro­tect­ing the Bago Range forests, in­clud­ing 20 armed For­est Po­lice of­fi­cers.

He ac­knowl­edged it would be dif­fi­cult to stem Bago’s high for­est losses and end poach­ing of an­i­mals such as ele­phants. He added that 20 pachy­derms were killed last year and 12 so far this year across Myan­mar, while con­flict be­tween ele­phants and vil­lagers was in­creas­ing due to the dis­ap­pear­ance of for­est, in par­tic­u­lar in Bago.

U Kyaw Min San, Bago Re­gion’s min­is­ter for nat­u­ral re­sources and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion, said au­thor­i­ties were, nonethe­less, mak­ing progress and the amount of con­fis­cated tim­ber in the range has in­creased by about 8pc com­pared to last year.

“We are ar­rest­ing il­le­gal log­gers on water­ways and roads, while we search any un­li­censed cars,” he said, adding that lo­cal poverty should also be ad­dressed as it causes com­mu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in log­ging.

Vil­lager log, smug­glers trade San Yu, the for­est ranger, said im­pov­er­ished vil­lagers liv­ing near the Bago Range saw log­ging as an im­por­tant source of in­come and tar­geted hard­wood trees, such as teak and iron wood, which they smug­gle out on ox carts us­ing for­est trails.

Tim­ber-smug­gling gangs pick up the logs along dirt roads at night. Due to the range’s cen­tral lo­ca­tion, most tim­ber is then taken to mar­kets in Yan­gon, Bago and Man­dalay, where wood-pro­cess­ing and fur­ni­ture work­shops use them to make prod­ucts for the do­mes­tic mar­ket.

San Yu said the more ac­ces­si­ble for­est ar­eas are now de­void of valu­able hard­wood species, and teak and iron wood can only be found deep in the moun­tains. He said the Bago Re­gion in­cludes 103 for­est re­serves cover­ing over 3 mil­lion acres, but these ar­eas have also been plun­dered by log­gers.

Rangers and For­est Po­lice strug­gle to cap­ture the in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent tim­ber smug­glers and can usu­ally only ar­rest poor lo­cals, San Yu said, adding that smug­glers should face crim­i­nal prose­cu­tion, but lo­cals re­quire “al­ter­na­tive job op­por­tu­ni­ties based on for­est prod­ucts”.

The gov­ern­ment, he said, should sup­port the cre­ation of small in­dus­tries that add value to raw for­est prod­ucts and vil­lagers should be taught they can earn in­come through sus­tain­able use of for­est prod­ucts.

“Bam­boo is a ma­jor prod­uct of this re­gion. In­dus­tries to make bam­boo prod­ucts should be set up in this area, in­stead of sell­ing out the raw bam­boo,”he said. “The lo­cals need to un­der­stand there can be other ef­fec­tive use of the for­est, in­stead of only log­ging.”

Photo: Myan­mar Now

Of­fi­cers in Bago face in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent log­gers.

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