‘Unprecedented Rate’ of Agriculture-Driven Deforestation: Report

By David Hopkins 12 March 2015

The conversion of forestlands for agricultural development is occurring at an “unprecedented rate,” aided by a weak legal framework governing forest management and land use, according to a new report released on Thursday.

Expanding on a previous analysis released in November 2013, the report by US-based non-profit Forest Trends illustrates how private agribusiness concessions, invariably held by well-connected firms in regions of rich biodiversity, are providing a “cover for logging operations.”

It cites official data that over 800 domestic companies acquired a total of 750,000 acres of demarcated forestland for industrial agricultural production as of 2013. In some cases, firms have demonstrated little or no intention of planting the agricultural crop despite clearing the land, suggesting timber extraction was the primary objective.

“Commercial Agriculture Expansion in Myanmar: Links to Deforestation, Conversion Timber, and Land Conflicts,” draws on two field case studies—in Tenasserim Division and Kachin State—that highlight the intersection between agribusiness concessions and the logging of high-value timber.

Tenasserim Division and Kachin State together account for 63 percent of the agricultural concessions allocated in Burma and also host the greatest extent of “remaining carbon-rich and biodiverse forests” in the country.

The analysis found that of the 1.9 million acres allocated for oil palm development in Tenasserim Division, only 360,000 acres, or 19 percent, had been planted by the end of 2013.

Among a raft of domestic companies with large oil palm concessions in the division, many, including SI Company and Eden Company, were described as having planted practically no oil palm on their allotments.

Tay Za’s Htoo Group of Companies holds a 668,000 acre concession in Kawthaung Township, the report said, the largest land concession yet awarded in the country.

“According to regional government data, Htoo Group of Companies has not yet planted any oil palm in any of its concessions, raising further suspicion conversion timber is the motive for profit,” the report said.

Concession-holding conglomerates such as Htay Myint’s Yuzana Company also have significant logging interests. In fact, the study said, those “companies most active in the logging sector received the largest oil palm concessions in the highest quality forests of the region.”

In Kachin State, where many Chinese-backed businesses are involved in resource extraction, although the political and economic context differs, a similar pattern of agriculture-driven deforestation was evident.

Of the 1.4 million acres of concessions awarded in Kachin State, primarily for rubber and biofuel crops, only 12 percent had been planted, the study found. A further 430,000 acres “have been earmarked as suitable for agribusiness production,” however, the study said, this includes forested areas and others “actively used by local communities for swidden agriculture and for other livelihood uses.”

Under Thein Sein’s government, several laws with implications for environmental conservation and land use, including the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Land Law and the Farmlands Law, have been introduced. Others, including the Forest Law and the National Land Use Policy, are yet to be finalized.

The report described the existing legal framework governing the large-scale conversion of forestland in Burma as “rife with legal loopholes” and exemptions, with the task of enforcement spread across numerous, uncoordinated government agencies. It criticized a “rule by decree” system in the country, “whereby timber becomes ‘legal’ if and when a high-level official declares it as such.”

The lack of data on timber extraction from agribusiness concessions poses significant hurdles for prospective importers to prove a clean “chain of custody” for Burmese wood products. According to Forest Trends, the value of Burma’s official timber product exports rose from just over US$1 billion in 2011 to an estimated US$1.6 billion in 2013.

In an effort to curb alarming rates of deforestation and regulate the timber industry, a government ban on the export of raw timber went into effect on April 1 last year. Burma’s government has also held discussions with the European Union on joining its Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan that includes measures to halt illegal logging.

“Our report clearly shows that a significant amount of timber may be coming from agribusiness concessions operating under a dubious legal regime,” the report’s author, Kevin Woods, told The Irrawaddy. “There’s no way of knowing with the current system in [Burma] if your timber actually came from [agribusiness concessions].”

New legislation, such as the long-pending Forest Law, is not expected to help reign in agriculture-driven deforestation.

“There’s no indication whatsoever that there’s going to be anything [in the Forest Law] addressing agribusiness concessions being allocated in forest areas,” Woods said. “We’re hoping that this [report] can spark that debate.”