On 1 April a new directive came into force prohibiting the export of all raw timber. Firms will still be allowed to process timber in the country and export value-added products such as teak furniture and semi-processed wood that have been chopped or sliced. But how absolute is this ban and how will it be enforced?
On DVB Debate’s panel this week: timber exporter Soe Maw; environmental expert Nyo Maung; Barber Cho, from Myanmar Timber Merchants Association; and Maung Maung Than, from the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre.
Panellists disagreed on how effective the ban will be in tackling deforestation and the ban’s potential effect on the timber industry.
Barber Cho said the directive, issued by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, would have a negative effect on timber production companies.
“The log timber export ban, will bring benefits to the wood-based industry as it will increase the raw timber in the domestic market. But for timber production companies, it will be harmful because their businesses will have to be closed,” he said.
Nyo Maung agreed that some domestic businesses will benefit, but claimed that the ban will have a negligible effect on deforestation.
“With value-added exports, we will gain more income while employment opportunities will improve. But deforestation will continue as long as the trees are cut for the purpose of exporting log timber or in any other way,” he said.
However, timber exporter Soe Maw insisted the ban will have a positive impact on deforestation.
“Actually, deforestation is not caused by the local timber industry, the main cause is raw log timber exports,” he said.
After military rule began in 1962, corruption in the extractive industries became endemic and deforestation accelerated. Government figures put Burma’s current forested area at around 47 percent, though some officials have said this figure could be as low as 24 percent.
Military generals gave logging concessions to crony businessmen to export raw logs in exchange for the cash needed to support their rule after sanctions and economic mismanagement starved them of hard currency.
A recent report released by the Environmental Investigation Agency on 25 March revealed US$6 billion worth of unauthorised timber exports between the years 2000 and 2013.
Front row guest Tony Neil from EcoDev criticised panellists for avoiding the more controversial side of this issue.
“Today people have spoken about the technical side, the impact and loss of revenue, but we haven’t spoken about the rampant corruption that plagues the whole sector,” he said. “We need to tackle the corruption and the political issue first.”
Barber Cho admitted that there are some flaws in the system.
“Monitoring is not really effective because the forestry management institution is a government institution and the official timber cutter is MTE [Myanmar Timber Enterprise] which is also a government institution,” he said. “So there are weaknesses in compliance.”
Forestry expert U Ohn said more measures needed to be taken if Burma is going make an impact on deforestation. Tree felling, as well as exports, needs to be stopped or reduced in order to save Burma’s forests, he said.
He went on to say that strict measures needed to be put in place to stop illegal cross-border trade.
“We must protect it in many different ways and as much as we can. To speak honestly, the border areas should be watched and controlled, even with armed personnel,” he said.
However, others on the panel were more positive about the direction the country is taking on environmental issues. Maung Maung Than said the timber ban showed a change in attitude from the government and is evidence of improvement.
“The Forestry Department is the main institution. And the political changes in the country have given power to the media and civil society,” he said. “Even though I don’t want to say it is perfect, I think our first steps are going in the right direction.”
The studio generally agreed that the ban is a positive step towards improving the sector, but it will not end deforestation. The law may only work if other reforms are implemented to tackle the endemic corruption in the industry.
You can join the debate and watch the full programme in Burmese at dvbdebate.com
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