Illegal logging mars Magwe’s forests
Magwe Region officials are struggling to combat illegal logging, which threatens to devastate some of the area’s last swathes of untouched forest.
THE scene is lined with turquoise mountains, surrounded by white cloud. Wherever you look you can see green-tinted hills and mist. This is the western fringe of Magwe Region in central Myanmar, on the border with Rakhine State, where valuable forests cover the Yoma mountains.
Vast trees, so wide that four people must join hands to reach around them, line the route to Htaw Zar village in Ngape township.
“You can still find large trees and bamboo here because they have not arrived yet,” a local resident said, referring to the loggers who have felled a path through the region.
Residents and officials say that illegal logging is rife in the Yoma mountain ranges that span from Rakhine through Magwe to Bago.
Forest near the western Yoma road has suffered the most damage, said Kyaw Ko Ko Shein from the Ngape Youth Network.
Local organisations that value the environment have lobbied the government to ban logging for more than three years, but have met with little success, he said.
Myanmar is the third-worst country in the world for deforestation, according to a 2015 report issued by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, which said that 43 percent of the country was covered in forest, down from 47pc in 2010.
In July this year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation said logging would be prohibited in major forested areas for the rest of this year, and in the Bago mountain range for a decade, but the ban will be hard to enforce.
Residents in the area say that valuable timber is not only being sold locally but also sent overland to Bangladesh.
Smugglers continue to cut down trees in Mindon, Kamma, Minhla, Ngape and Sidoktaya townships, they said, storing the timber in Padan on the junction between the road from Minbu to Ann, and the Pathein-Monywa road. From there, the timber is taken to Bangladesh.
Local residents in Tone Gyi and Gote Gyi villages in Ngape township said that hardwoods such as Padauk and Sagawah are among the victims of illegally logging.
“In the past these mountains were thick with the fragrance of Sagawah but now the trees have been sent to Bangladesh. In the past they were sent from Ann to Sittwe but there were arrests, so it now passes through Kyaukphyu,” said Ko Yan Naung Tun from Yoma Light Youth Organisation.
There has been demand across the border for Myanmar’s teak and other hardwoods since 2009, according to U Thant Zin, head of the Ayeyarwady West Development Organisation.
Mindon, Kamma, Minha, Ngape and Sidoktaya townships in Magwe all struggle with conversation in an environment of illegal logging, said township residents and forestry department staff.
“We’ve few staff and a large area we’re responsible for,” said one township-level forestry official, who asked to remain anonymous. “We try to arrest them [the loggers] when local residents inform us of activity.”
An official from Magwe Region’s Forestry Department said that although the department has authorisation for a staff of over 1000, it has only 65 percent of that number.
“At most we have 60 staff for a township,” said another townshiplevel official who also declined to give his name. Forestry staff lack the infrastructure to investigate the entire area, and there are areas where staff do not have the right to investigate, he added.
“We can’t cover a wide area,” he said, adding that efforts to fight logging are most successful when local residents reported illegal activity.
Local residents wishing to report information on illegal logging can contact the relevant township hluttaw representative secretly, according to U Khin Maung Aye, Magwe Region minister for natural resources and environmental conservation.
Between the start of April, when the new government came to office, and August 7, authorities nationwide seized over 17,000 tonnes of illegal timber, over 2500 offenders and 785 vehicles, according to officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
Authorities are seizing increasing amounts of illegal timber in Magwe – over 2000 tonnes in the 2015-16 financial year, up from over 1300 tonnes in 2013-14. As of July authorities had captured over 1000 tonnes of illegal timber this year, but local residents say this is only a fraction of the amount actually being logged.
“Ngape township [alone] produces more than that,” said Ko Yan Naung Tun activist from the Yoma Alin Tan Group. “There are trucks loaded with as much as 20 tonnes of timber in a single week and that’s just from the mountain region,” he said.
Timber on the Minbu-Ann road that connects Magwe Region and Rakhine State started to be cut down around eight years ago and now large trees are rare. Forestry officials said the deforestation was due to migrant farmers, although locals blame illegal logging.
“There was no road before. All you could see was forest,” said 62 year-old U Kyar from Gote Gyi village on the Minbu-Ann road. When the road was built it helped the area develop, but also helped timber traffickers, he added.
“I’m not sure if it’s illegal or legal, but timber trucks drive down from the Yoma mountains every evening,” said Daw Win Win from a village in Bago Region near the Magwe border.
Road building has provided easier travel routes for illegal timber. In 2010 a mountain pass road opened connecting Paukkhaung township in Bago Region to several townships in the east of Magwe. This was used mainly for legal timber production, but was also used by illegal timber dealers, said an official from the general administration office of one of the townships.
Local residents often find partial employment in the illegal timber industry, which they turn to for extra income or because a lack of opportunities elsewhere.
“Timber prices aren’t high here, but people know they will get a good price when they transport the timber [illegally] and other jobs are harder so they do this,” said an illegal logger from Ngape township. He had worked with local conservation groups before joining timber dealers and turning to illegal logging.
Locals from Sidoktaya township in western Magwe used to farm along rivers and creeks, but several dams built in the area over the last decade mean they now have to rely on timber.
“Dams were constructed in our region and creeks were destroyed,” said U Than Soe, a former administrator of a village in Sidoktaya township. “Some families were broken up when people went abroad others turned to logging to make a living.”
Those that turned to logging can make K10,000 in a day, but that often has to feed a family of four or five, he said. “The real benefits go to the timber dealers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the spread of chainsaws has made it easier to fell trees, increasing the pace of deforestation. A survey by a Sidoktaya township development group found around 30 chainsaws in that township alone.
Chainsaws can be bought and distributed legally only with a recommendation from a local forestry department, according to a government directive issued in June. But they are still spreading fast.
“Now that chainsaws have replaced axes deforestation has sped up, and the region is full of illegal chainsaws and trucks,” said development group leader U Win Myin Htwe.
‘In the past these mountains were thick with the fragrance of sagawah.’ Ko Yan Naung Tun Yoma Light Youth Organisation
Illegal logging is rife in Magwe, but the region still boasts many areas of untouched forest.
Timber lies at the side of a dirt path in Magwe forest.