Report Calls for Logging Moratorium, End to State-Run MTE
By Moe Myint 31 March 2016
RANGOON — International and Burmese environmental organizations this week said Burma’s forest reserves are largely exhausted, calling for a moratorium on commercial logging and the dismantling or privatization of the state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).
Those finding came in an analysis released on Wednesday in a report titled “Legally and Illegally Logged Out,” an EU-funded research project that looked at the state of Burma’s timber industry and prospects for reform.
At a press conference held for the report’s launch in Rangoon, Professor Oliver Springate-Baginski of the University of East Anglia, one of its authors, said deeply rooted corruption was one factor driving forest loss—and was also one reason the MTE should be abolished.
He said several sources acknowledged to him they had paid large bribes to military and MTE personnel, part of an illicit trade that includes cronies with ties to the former Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, high-ranking Burma Army officials and localized militias and ethnic armed groups.
“It’s clear that there is institutionalized corruption in many aspects of the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, which means they have served the dictatorship, in the legal and illegal destruction of forests, so the institution of MTE is a problem for future forest recovery and sustainability,” Springate-Baginski told The Irrawaddy.
Springate-Baginski played a video clip during the press conference in which several local smalltime black market timber traders, their faces obscured, readily admitted to bribing government officials in Sagaing Division’s Pinlebu Township to conduct their business more easily.
Though Burma shares a border with five other countries, most illicit raw timber is smuggled across the border into China from northern Burma’s Kachin State.
The report said Burma’s forests had been logged at unsustainable levels for decades, but that “[t]his plunder reached a final crescendo in the felling season of 2013-2014 as it became clear the opportunities provided by the military era were ending.”
Dr. Win Myo Thu, cofounder and director of the local Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development (EcoDev) group, said the military continued to wield significant say in the industry, making the powerful institution a necessary partner in any reform effort.
“Even though the Forestry Department staff knows some civil militias are involved in illegal logging, they are frightened to seize them because all decision-making is controlled by the [Burma] Army.”
The government officially banned the export of raw timber on April 1, 2014, but illegal flows continue across the border into China.
“The Chinese government is not respecting Myanmar’s laws,” Springate-Baginski said, chalking up Beijing’s indifference regarding the trade’s legality to China’s own largely depleted commercial forest reserves amid high domestic demand for timber.
One tree particularly hard-hit by excessive logging over the last two decades is teak. According to Springate-Baginski, who cited Forestry Department data, Burma had 37 million teak trees of 8-inch diameter or larger in 1996. In 2010, that figure had fallen to 7 million.
Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, director of the MTE, was away on travel and could not be for comment on Thursday concerning his enterprise’s future.
Ba Ba Cho, who is secretary of the governmental Myanmar Forest Certification Committee, said reform was indeed the plan for MTE, a company of some 40,000 employees, about half of whom are former civil servants. In addition to the large human resources pool, the business employs about 5,000 elephants, used to haul timber.
He declined to comment directly upon the recommended “phasing out” of the MTE. But he acknowledged that “if any enterprise has no benefit for the country, it should be dissolved. However, profound consideration must be paid to subordinates [MTE staff] and the consequences will be significant because it has been running almost five decades for the country.”
In addition to removing MTE in its current form from the equation, a series of recommendations for the newly installed government included an overall review of the sector’s policies, introduction of transparency measures, improved border controls and decentralization of forest management.