Burma’s forests and the danger of agribusiness

Burma’s forests and the danger of agribusiness

Burma’s forests are in severe danger as large-scale agribusinesses continue to eat up more land, razing large swathes of Southeast Asia’s last remaining woodlands with dire consequences for livelihoods, biodiversity and national peace, says a Washington-based organisation.

A report released on Thursday by Forest Trends emphasises the threat of “converting” the country’s forests to make room for mass agricultural projects, citing the process as the primary cause of deforestation. Over 5.2 million acres have already been allocated for such schemes by the government, and the figure is increasing, with a further 11 million earmarked for the future – though the real numbers may be much higher, as only the areas under official government control can be verified.

As early as 1991, handpicked businesses were being gifted with land reallocated from small-time farmers, with instructions to produce rubber, rice, palm-oil, and jatropha to contribute to Myanmar’s self-sufficiency and boost export earnings in the face of weighty international sanctions. Much of this land was – and still is – undeveloped, says Forest Trends.

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The idea that local communities benefit from this process is bogus, according to report author Kevin Woods. “Claims that agribusiness ventures bring employment and economic development to local communities are left as hollow promises when villagers’ farming fields and forests are confiscated,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of these cleared lands – nearly four million acres – are still not planted, and concessions do not follow any kind of regulation to protect the environment or local communities from negative impact.”

Conversion of forested areas leads increases carbon emissions, inflames armed conflicts and sees money flow into the pockets of corrupt officials and “cronies”, says the report, while noting that the unprecedented rate of clearance stands in contradiction to the government’s stated aims of protecting Burma’s ecology and land rights, as well as supporting civil society.

Burma’s deforestation and the armed conflicts that have plagued the country for decades form a perfect storm. Most of the richest forestry areas are “essentially outside of effective control” because they lie in restive border areas, while the disruption of customary laws and practices of land use can drive aggression, Forest Trends has found.

The threat of massive-scale agribusiness to the lush forests of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, is doubly catastrophic when combined with the global demand for the effects of tree-felling: hard woods, such as teak, for which the value of Burmese exports jumped from US$1 billion to $1.6 billion from 2011 to 2013.

Despite European and US legislation against the trade in illegally logged timber, in the forms of the European Union Timber Regulation and Lacey Act, respectively, the market continues to thrive amid decreased sanctions against Burma, maintains the Washington-based NGO, concluding that the legality of timber products is hard to verify, so the lucrative profits made from conversion of forests for agribusiness continue to roll in.

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