Il­le­gal log­ging mars Magwe’s forests

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NAY AUNG nayaung@mm­times.com – Trans­la­tion by San Layy and Khant Lin Oo

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

Photo: Nay Aung

Il­le­gal log­ging is rife in Magwe, but the re­gion still boasts many ar­eas of un­touched for­est.

Photo: Nay Aung

Tim­ber lies at the side of a dirt path in Magwe for­est.

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