Several forest rangers and policemen were manning a sleepy checkpoint on a dirt road near the village of Myo Kaung, in the foothills of the Pegu mountain range, on a recent July afternoon.
Though Sein Kant Lant Checkpoint is not much more than a metal bar blocking the road and a small office building surrounded by piles of logs, this is a frontline position in the government’s battle against rampant illegal logging.
Some officials were armed and the atmosphere was tense as they recalled recent operations against loggers. The post, located some 15 km west of the Rangoon-Naypyitaw Highway in Kyauktaga Township, sits at a junction of dirt roads that lead into the Pegu Range and past forest reserves, making it an important timber-smuggling route.
Forest ranger San Yu said that in June a team of 22 unarmed Forest Department officials from Pegu Division’s Kyauktaga and Nyaung Lay Pin townships went on a nighttime patrol and spotted four men loading a truck with timber some 10 km from the checkpoint.
As officials approached to apprehend them, the loggers sped off, then jumped from the truck a few kilometres down the road and set the wood on fire. The loggers used slingshots and knives to attack the rangers who were in pursuit, and managed to escape into the night. Two of the rangers sustained minor injuries in the attack.
“We did not carry any weapons,” San Yu said. “I was transferred here eight months ago and this is the very first time I saw forest officers violently attacked by loggers. It was shocking.”
Since then, Pegu Division authorities have sent 10 armed officers from the Forest Police, a unit under the Ministry of Home Affairs, to Sein Kant Lant Checkpoint to help the rangers and strengthen operations against loggers.
San Yu said, however, that brazen acts by loggers had not stopped. “Even after we enforced security, an illegal logging truck tried to escape from our officers by crashing through the metal bar at our checkpoint. But they were arrested after a [Forest Police] officer shot one of their tires,” he said.
A government push to protect forests
Burma’s forests were heavily logged in recent decades by timber and agribusiness companies operating with government approval, and by gangs of illegal loggers. Huge forest areas in Kachin State, Sagaing Division, Tenasserim Division, and in the Arakan and Pegu mountain ranges disappeared, and billions of dollars worth of timber flowed out unregulated to neighbouring countries, environmental activists have estimated.
Both military units and ethnic rebels reportedly taxed the timber smuggling in ethnic areas, while government corruption at various levels facilitates the plunder of the forests. Despite initial efforts of the previous, quasi-civilian government to rein in deforestation, forests continue to rapidly disappear.
The UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency said in a 2015 report that an estimated 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of forest was lost from 2001 to 2013. Burma still retains one of the highest forest covers in Southeast Asia at about 50 percent, but also has one of its highest annual deforestation rates at around 2 percent, the group said.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) government has stated it will prioritise better management of forests, rivers and natural resources. It proposed a one-year moratorium on logging in major forest areas and recently the Ministry of Resources and Environmental Conservation issued a 10-year logging ban for the Pegu Range, in recognition of the dire situation of its forests.
The 475-kilometre stretch of mountains in central Burma was once densely forested and populated with wildlife, but now faces some of the worst logging and poaching in the country.
Minister of Resources and Environmental Conservation Ohn Win told parliament on 29 July that government operations against loggers had increased in the past six months and netted 15,000 tons of illegal timber, including 1,274 tons in Pegu Division.
Myo Min, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Resources and Environmental Conservation, said around 600 Forest Department officials were tasked with protecting the Pegu Range forests, including 20 armed Forest Police officers.
He acknowledged it would be difficult to stem Pegu’s high forest losses and end poaching of animals such as elephants. He added that 20 elephants were killed last year and 12 so far this year across Burma, while conflict between elephants and villagers was increasing due to the disappearance of forest, particularly in Pegu Division.
Kyaw Min San, Pegu Division’s Minister for Natural Resource and Environmental Conservation, said authorities were, nonetheless, making progress and the amount of confiscated timber in the range has increased by about 8 percent compared to last year.
“We are arresting illegal loggers on waterways and roads, while we search any unlicensed cars,” he said, adding that local poverty should also be addressed as it causes communities to participate in logging.
Villagers log, smugglers trade
San Yu, the forest ranger, said impoverished villagers living near the Pegu Range saw logging as an important source of income and targeted hardwood trees, such as teak and iron wood, which they smuggle out on ox carts using forest trails.
Timber-smuggling gangs pick up the logs along dirt roads at night. Due to the range’s central location, most timber is then taken to markets in Rangoon, Pegu and Mandalay, where wood-processing and furniture workshops use them to make products for the domestic market.
San Yu said the more accessible forest areas are now devoid of valuable hardwood species, and teak and iron wood can only be found deep in the mountains. He said Pegu Division includes 103 forest reserves covering over 3 million acres, but these areas have also been plundered by loggers.
Rangers and Forest Police struggle to capture the increasingly violent timber smugglers and can usually only arrest poor locals, San Yu said, adding that smugglers should face criminal prosecution, but locals require “alternative job opportunities based on forest products.”
The government, he said, should support the creation of small industries that add value to raw forest products and villagers should be taught they can earn income through sustainable use of forest products.
“Bamboo is a major product of this region. Industries to make bamboo products should be set up in this area, instead of selling out the raw bamboo,” he said. “The locals need to understand there can be other effective use of the forest, instead of only logging.”
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 9 August 2016.