Myanmar Struggles to Control Illegal Logging

Myanmar Struggles to Control Illegal Logging

Officials think registering chainsaws could turn the tide

Pyar Aung remembers the first time he saw a chainsaw. It was a German-made number being used by one of the logging companies operating in the forest around his remote village in Myanmar’s northwest Sagaing region in 2013.

“It was so powerful and fast!” recalled the 50 year-old Aung, who lives in the tiny village of Mahu. It wasn’t until August 2016 that he got one himself, and today he owns three. Each cost him around US$124, though cheaper versions can be purchased in urban centers for about one seventh the price. In spite of the law, he said he was never asked to show paperwork to buy the chainsaws, nor were any of his fellow villagers.

The claim is surprising given the fact that logging is practically a cottage industry in his community. Among 37 households they own 70 chainsaws. On a recent visit there, they also said they weren’t aware of the fairly new regulation implemented in 2016 that requires them to register their chainsaws with Myanmar’s Forestry Department.

Remote locales like this are at the heart of a struggling government campaign to turn the tide on illegal chainsaw use and logging.

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A villager from Mahu poses with his chainsaw in front of one other source of meager local income: a mat made of dry bamboo. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Mahu is a stark case in point of difficulties the Burmese government faces in educating disconnected rural populations about chainsaw ownership and use. The village is an isolated island of homes deep in the Patolon Forest Reserve, part of Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. An ASEAN Heritage Park, it is Myanmar’s largest national park, at 1,605 square kilometers (619 square miles).

Despite almost nonexistent knowledge of safety equipment, training, and protocols, chainsaws are gaining in popularity as the logging tool of choice in Myanmar’s rich forests. The country is the largest supplier of natural teak (Tectona grandis) in the world. Forestry officials say they began to see an uptick in imported chainsaws between 2013 and 2014. That increase, with numbers that are very difficult to track and verify, is likely in the hundreds to thousands per year.

That’s bad news for Myanmar’s forests. A chainsaw can cut down a tree four times faster than the more traditional methods of an axe or a handsaw.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which tracks forest cover globally, notes that between 1990 and 2015, the country already lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. There’s no official data yet on whether a national logging ban in place from mid-2016 to April 2017 had an impact on forest loss.

The geography of locales like Mahu — incredibly remote with limited options for income — contributes to illegal logging. It is completely cut off from the outside world for the four-month rainy season due to bad roads. The national education system only arrived in the village five years ago, and there is still no electricity nor cell signal. Villagers are motivated by basic economics to own chainsaws for logging to expedite their work.

There’s also a demand.

Brokers from nearby villages started to show up in Mahu in 2016 in search of wood for sale, around the time that the Burmese government instituted regulations for buying and owning a chainsaw.

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Freshly cut trees, illegally logged, wait on the riverside wait to be transported from the forest to Mahu for sale. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Aung says that he can make about US$95 per tonne of logs. He typically collects 1.5 to 2 tonnes of wood per week to sell. If the rest of the village logs at a similar pace, they can cut down about 46 tonnes every week, or more than 180 tonnes per month. If they sell what they log at the rate Aung notes, the village can make at least US$17,500 a month. A conservative estimate of annual village income from illegal logging — minus the rainy season — is about US$140,000 annually.

For generations, villagers here have eked out an existence on meager profit from rice farming and other activities like selling handmade bamboo mats. Logging represents a chance to diversify and amplify income streams.

“If we only grow rice, it’s not enough to make a living and that’s why we started cutting trees, but we mostly only log teak,” Aung said. Teak is one of the most valuable tropical hardwood species in the world. “The demand (for wood) is so high.”

Regulations and enforcement

Villagers in Mahu might claim ignorance about their illegal chainsaws and logging activity, but their actions suggest otherwise. On a recent day in February, everyone stopped logging, disassembled their chainsaws, and hid the parts deep in the forest upon word of an impending Forestry Department inspection.

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Altered to an inspection by the Forestry Department, villagers from Mahu take a chainsaw apart to hide parts in different locations in the forest. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Kyaw Minn Htut, founder of Thuriya Sandra Environmental Watch Group, has kept track of Mahu’s chainsaws, which he confirms aren’t registered and were not purchased legally. He has a complex relationship with the villagers.

“It was me who reported this village to the forestry department,” Htut said while sitting with residents at their monastery, which also functions as a community hall.  “But I asked the forestry department officers to forgive them, because they have no money to be fined and if you take away their chainsaw, they will have no way of surviving.”

Htut is a native of Sagaing state in his early 40s, and has been doing conservation work in Sagaing region since 2003. He is incredibly persistent when it comes to finding and reporting illegal logging. He once spent 10 days in the forest counting unmarked stumps in an area that had been logged and found that the company (whose name he didn’t disclose) had logged 572 extra trees.

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