Myanmar Struggles to Control Illegal Logging

Myanmar Struggles to Control Illegal Logging

Officials think registering chainsaws could turn the tide

“Four MTE [Myanma Timber Enterprise] officers and three FD [Forestry Department] officers were fired because of my report,” he claims. Htut’s philosophy is that deforestation is not caused by individual loggers, but by logging companies approved by the MTE, which regulates the industry domestically.

“Chainsaws are not the problem, the root of the problem is the policy and the law,” Htut said. “The current one is set up for organizations that are involved in mass production, but not for the people.”

When it comes to the activity in Mahu, he wants to help them to legitimately earn income from logging. With his assistance, the villagers have applied to manage the forest surrounding their village, but have not heard back from the forestry department. It’s unlikely they ever will.

It’s also just as unlikely that they will stop cutting down trees.

“The villagers here at Mahu only cut what they need to survive, they don’t do it to get rich,” Htut said. “Besides what will the villagers feel, if the people not related to this area come and harvest all the valuable wood, but they themselves can’t even do that?”

In Mandalay, the nearest urban center for the timber market and commercial goods, people are a bit more savvy about the rules for selling and owning chainsaws. Along Mandalay’s so-called “iron street” of machinery and tool shops, out of a randomly selected seven shops along a 40-block stretch, only one displayed chainsaws. Others wouldn’t even discuss a sale without proper paperwork. Fears of plainclothes police officers pretending to be customers are top of mind.

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A vendor shows a chainsaw hidden behind other commercial products in a hardware shop in Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Many other shops take a more subdued approach. Some put the chainsaw blades in the corner, but the rest of the equipment stays hidden in back storage rooms and are only presented on request.

“There is a crackdown on chainsaws,” said Ko Ko Win, who manages one such machinery shop. “If you want to sell chainsaws, you need a license, if you want to buy a chainsaw, you also need a license from the forestry department.”

Win adds that a obtaining license to buy a chainsaw involves answering a list of questions such as reasons for the purchase, which trees will be cut, and the locations where the tool will be used.

“It’s a very complicated procedure, I don’t understand the reason behind all this madness,” he said. “But I guess it’s the new government, and it comes with new rules.” The country held its first democratic election in decades in 2015 and brought human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, to power.

In June 2016 Myanmar’s Forestry Department amended its forestry laws include a policy on chainsaw registration: Whoever uses a chainsaw without permission can be sued, face up to two years in prison, and/or a fine of up to the equivalent of US$15. They also created a committee with police officers, local and regional forestry department officers, and township administrators to enforce chainsaw rules and regulations. That includes monthly reports from forestry departments in each township, district, division and state to headquarters in Naypyidaw.

Combating the myriad aspects of illegal logging in Myanmar is already a huge job for authorities. Just as the national ban lifted in mid-April, officials announced that in the past year they seized 55,000 tonnes of illegal timber and 2,600 vehicles and pieces of machinery. Arrests of timber smugglers included 11 foreigners and 8,310 Burmese nationals.

Import headaches

Myanmar is still in the early stages of regulating chainsaws, especially when it comes to import rules.

Officer Phyo Zin Mon Naing is assistant director of Myanmar’s Forestry Department at Naypyidaw and oversees chainsaw registration. He said in an interview that he’s been working on issues regarding chainsaw registration since 2013, but prior to that there were simply no laws or regulations. In 2014, the government started to ask users to register equipment, but the system was inefficient and difficult to enforce.

The current procedure, which includes import laws, was put into place after discussion with various departments and the central government.

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A villager from Mahu cuts down a tree using a midsize chainsaw. A chainsaw can cut down a tree four times faster than an axe and handsaw. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

The complex procedure requires importers to submit an inquiry for a permit to import chainsaws and present their import license and company registration to the Ministry of Commerce, which then submits it to the forestry department for a recommendation letter. In order to issue a recommendation letter, the forestry department has to first check the chainsaw type, country of origin, import method, the number of chainsaws in the current stock, a list of chainsaw distributors by the company and other detailed information. The importer isn’t technically allowed to sell their chainsaws if they don’t agree to monthly reports on their distribution and stock.

Naing believes that this system, which targets importers, distributors, and users of chainsaws, is feasible. For example, they once received an application from a machinery shop that wanted to import 20,000 chainsaws. The request was rejected.

“Currently, there are a total of 1,281 legal chainsaws in the country,” Naing said from the most recently available chart in January 2017. “Sagaing has the most registered chainsaw at 423 units, the second is Mon State with 178 units.”

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