At a conference held in Naypyidaw last week, senior Burmese and Chinese government officials agreed to establish a bilateral system to recognise “legal” timber in a bid to tackle the problem of illegal logging and trade in timber.
“Both countries have officially launched a China-Burma Forestry Governance Project to better regulate bilateral trade in timber,” said Ji Lin, an environmental NGO representative from China who attended the meeting.
“This is the first time officials from both countries have sat down together to discuss the issues face to face,” she said. “Both sides say they believe it is crucial for Chinese companies to invest responsibly in Burma. Therefore, as they are both currently trying to establish forestry laws, the governments will work on a list of [types of] legal timber that can be transported between the countries.”
A proposed Legal Timber Mutual Recognition Mechanism is slated to be officially enforced later this year or at the beginning of 2016, Ji said, adding that a series of formal and informal bilateral dialogues will be held to reach a final consensus.
Cross-border timber trade between China and Burma has been growing strongly in recent years amid allegations of cross-border smuggling, illegal logging, and the use of timber revenues to finance internal conflict.
Dr. Wong Pak Nung, the director of Global China Centre of University of Bath, said he believes the proposed agreement will create effective legislation on the timber trade, but isolate those involved in unapproved logging and transportation.
“The cross-border trade in illegal timber has long been conducted clandestinely by governmental officials of both countries,” he said. “This does not benefit the local populations. The legalisation of the timber trade will strengthen the sovereign reaches of the centralised authorities in Beijing and Naypyidaw into the frontier areas. It will also strengthen state regulatory administrative powers over their own officials so that the two states’ public coffers will benefit.”
Professor Wong Jianlan of the Chinese Academy of Forestry told DVB that the new move will see a dramatic decrease in the illegal timber trade between Burma and China.
“Last year, Burma officially banned raw wood from being exported abroad. But this is just a domestic law – as far as Chinese customs officers are concerned, it is irrelevant,” he said. “So if we can establish a list of rare woods that are not permitted to be exported in any case, then we can effectively prevent their illegal smuggling from Burma to China.”
According to Ji, one arm of the cooperation project will be to analyse the differences between Chinese and Burmese export procedures and documentation requirements, as well as training China’s customs officers to identify rare and banned species of wood.
The project is also due to consider forestry governance, including measures such as developing national guidelines for forestry investment, and regulating the social behaviour of Chinese companies investing in Burma.
The two countries are also in talks to establish a wood-processing industry in Burma to increase high value-added activities, as well as to increase employment.
“The project will be executed jointly by the Chinese State Forestry Administration and the Myanmar Ministry of Forestry,” said Ji. “It was initiated by the Global Environment Institute alongside Chinese authorities, and is to be funded by the Blaymont Foundation as a part of the Sino-British International Forestry Project.”
Ji said representatives from Kachin State and Shan State also attended the meeting, but that there is as yet no discussion on the table on how to cooperate with ethnic rebels.
“They asked some questions and raised their concerns, like about what happened in Kachin State last week [when more than 100 Chinese were arrested on Burmese soil for logging]. As from China’s side, we are also against illegal logging, so we need to further discuss how to solve the problems properly,” Ji said.
Wong Pak Nung said if the two governments are able to siphon the revenues back to the local frontier societies, the problem of prolonged ethnic insurgencies and drug trafficking in the area can ultimately be pacified.
Another expert, however, expressed his concern about the definition of “illegal timber logging” being directed only against ethnic rebels. “More national attention from Naypyidaw and Beijing on the overland timber trade should not just amount to making sure that logs only go through Myanmar government checkpoints,” said Kevin Woods, a logging expert at Forest Trends, a Washington DC-based non-profit organisation. “This should not become a political manoeuvre against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) disguised as environmental stewardship or good forest governance as it is currently being framed.”
More than 140 illegal loggers – most of whom were allegedly Chinese – were arrested during a recent crackdown on illegal logging by the Burmese authorities, and hundreds of Chinese workers, essentially jade miners, were reportedly trapped by a surge in fighting between government forces and rebel soldiers in Kachin State. Yet the meeting did not discuss those incidents.
In a press conference on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying confirmed a total of 155 Chinese illegal loggers were in detention, although each one of them was in sound physical and mental state. “China urges the Burmese side to accord humanitarian treatment to the detainees, and guarantee their legitimate rights and interests,” said Hua. She also confirmed that the Chinese loggers will be further investigated and go on trial in Burma.
Another 305 Chinese nationals who were trapped in the volatile conflict zone in northern Burma have now safely returned home to China after assistance from the KIO, according to a spokesman from one of the Kachin rebels’ allies.