The numbers clearly aren’t exact, though. For example, the number of known chainsaws in the Sagaing region alone would be 16 percent higher if the units in Mahu village were registered.
Yet despite known pockets of lawlessness like Mahu, Naing is confident.
“Now we have control over chainsaws in this country,” he said, adding that between 2014 to the end of 2016, they seized a total of 746 illegal chainsaws. Most of those come from individuals owners and are handed over to the MTE.
Problems with enforcement
A major problem with monitoring illegal chainsaws is lack of control in insurgency areas, especially Kachin state in Northern Myanmar. Kachin shares a long border with China and is largely controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its military arm the Kachin Independent Army (KIA). They have an estimated 8,000 troops and are believed to be involved in illegal logging.
“We believe they have a large logging problem, but we don’t have details,” Naing said, adding that they have no communication regarding chainsaw registry with members of KIO. “But we work with the Myanmar military to seize illegal timber in those areas.”
They face myriad challenges, some of which could be life and death.
“This work is difficult and very dangerous, officers at the forestry department don’t have guns, we have no security, how do we protect ourselves?” said Naing. “We just have our pen.”
In fact, Naing doesn’t think there is a clear connection between seized timber and registered chainsaws, especially since the registry is so new. The forestry department is also still in the process of getting its staff and other government agencies up to speed on the registry’s use.
If it proves effective, it could have an impact.
“If we control chainsaws, it will reduce illegal logging in the future,” Naing said. He added that one way they are doing this is through outreach programs, which include group information sessions on how to register chainsaws and the impact to the environment from illegal logging. In January 2017, he said they held 286 chainsaw registry outreach sessions across the country.
Despite complaints over the complicated procedure to obtain a chainsaw, Naing sees the approach as standard.
“If you import a car from a foreign country you have to submit paperwork, so importing chainsaws should be treated the same way,” he said. He added that he thinks the forest coverage rate is directly related to number of chainsaws. “There are so few officers at the forestry department but so many loggers in Myanmar, how do we control the situation?” he asked. “We must do it, we must register the chainsaws.”
A hopeful future, at a cost
In Mahu, logging is slowly transforming the lives of the villagers, although not everyone can yet afford to purchase a chainsaw. Khin Mg Htwe is 32 years old, tan and lean from years of rice farming before he turned to working as a timber porter.
“I don’t know how to operate a chainsaw, and I can’t afford one yet, but I’m happy they are cutting wood so I can make some income by transporting the timber out of our village,” Htwe said.
Transporting logs with cows that are usually for farming near Mahu. The porter can usually earn almost US$4 per pair haul with a pair of cows. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.
The four-hour round trip by foot to the nearest village involves tying the timber to his two cows and a two-day rest after each trip. He makes a mere US$4 each time.
Thar Kyi is a 32-year-old father of four, and is recognized as a chainsaw expert by other villagers, who joke that he cuts the straightest line with chainsaws. Like Htwe, Kyi doesn’t own a chainsaw and is hired by chainsaw owners for US$4 per day to operate their machinery. He said that part of his motivation is based on family obligations.
“I have to pay US$5 for my kids [per child] to go to school per month,” Kyi said. Though primary education is free in Myanmar, teachers often ask for extra money in rural areas to offset the cost of uniforms and books.
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.
Even though activist Htut is devoted to conservation and to preventing illegal logging, he is sympathetic to the villagers.
“I will never ask them to stop logging, because I have no other money-making options to offer them yet,” Htut said. “Before they used to focus more on cultivating rice, now they spend more time on logging and they have to buy rice to eat during the rainy season.”
He doesn’t believe that stricter enforcement of chainsaw regulations will stop the loggers.
“They will just go back to using axes and handsaws, the illegal logging will continue and so will the bribery to related governmental officials,” he said.
Genevieve Bellmaker is Forests Editor of Mongabay, a nonprofit provider of conservation and environmental science news. Ann Wang is a foreign correspondent and photojournalist based in Myanmar. You can find her on Instagram at AnnWang077. Republished by request