Challenges Await as Burma is Vetted for EU Timber Trading Partnership

By Nyein Nyein 22 November 2016

Hoping to overcome doubts over the legality of exported timber in the European market, the Burmese government is attempting to become a trading partner within the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (EU-FLEGT), a process which could take five to ten years.

An interim taskforce—a collaborative effort between representatives from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, the private timber sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) advocating for legal timber production—has been dealing with the issue since January 2015.

If Burma becomes the member country in the EU-FLEGT, “problems and misunderstandings could be overcome,” said U Aye Cho Thaung, the deputy general manager of the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, referring to last week’s Swedish court ruling that exported teak from Burma was harvested illegally.

FLEGT members have to ensure that they are following the Volunteer Partnership Agreement (VPA) process in combating illegal logging during the production and processing of timber, and also adhering to effective forest governance. Member benefits include direct export to the EU market. There are 28 member countries that have signed the VPA, including—in Southeast Asia—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Membership would be “proof” that Burma’s timber business is changing and adhering to international standards, and that shift “would improve the image of the State,” in addition to reaping economic benefits, said U Barber Cho, who was a consultant with the Myanmar Forest Certificate Committee (MFCC). He added that Burma’s timber trade with EU companies stands at less than US$100 million.

Becoming a VPA member country of the EU-FLEGT is not an easy process. Environmentalist and director of EcoDev U Win Myo Thu explained that it requires transparency on the part of the government. In the meantime, EcoDev has initiated awareness raising activities about the FLEGT within civil society.

“The government needs to prove to the European Union that timber production is legal, as well as provide open access for CSOs and third party organizations to check whether timber products have been legally harvested and [that the process] is not violating the human rights of the local population,” U Win Myo told The Irrawaddy.

Ethnic minority communities in remote regions in particular have faced rights abuses related to logging and the production of timber. A half-century of civil war and military rule, which gave way to widespread land confiscation and timber harvest in the name of agricultural cultivation, have contributed to the vulnerability of these populations throughout Burma.

In verifying the legality of timber extraction and in ensuring the state’s standing in the international community, U Win Myo Thu said the government “should willingly accept the role of CSOs” in counter-checking, which previous governments did not allow.

If the respective authorities are unwilling to make changes recommended by third parties, the process for recognition as an FLEGT member could take more than a decade, he added.

Forested areas across the country are not all under the control of the central government, as many are located in regions home to Burma’s many ethnic nationality groups, including those in the northern part of the country where fighting has been ongoing between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

On Nov. 20, a joint offensive against the Burma Army by the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Arakan Army—calling themselves the Northern Alliance—raised questions about the direction in which peace talks will continue. U Barber Cho said that becoming a member state in the EU-FLEGT is of “parallel importance” to the current peace process and upcoming political dialogue.

“If we do not have a firm political dialogue framework which guarantees shared interests concerning natural resources, this effort [to be a VPA country within the EU-FLEGT] could go on for more than five years,” he said.