The Illegal Timber Trade Is Destroying Myanmar’s Forests and Wildlife

Demand in China for endangered rosewood is putting the tree at risk of extinction.
Logging trucks in Kachin, Myanmar, on their way to China. (Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency)
Sep 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Myanmar’s ancient and biodiverse forests are once again under threat. A new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency has found that millions of dollars’ worth of trees are illegally chopped down every year and then trucked across the border into neighboring China.

This illegal trade has been around for decades but had slowed for several years. Now it is surging again, according to EIA.

Julian Newman, EIA campaigns director, said one reason for the increase in illegal activity is demand for two species of trees called rosewood, which is carved into intricate and expensive traditional Chinese furniture called hongmu. China’s wealthy buy hongmu furniture as status symbols, and EIA investigators expressed fears that the two rosewood species are at risk of extinction in as little as three years.

Teak trees, which are carved up to make flooring for homes and yacht decks, also play a prominent role in the trade. “The teak logs we saw were especially large,” Newman said.

EIA found that the criminal trade takes advantage of political unrest in Myanmar’s Kachin state, which has been engaged in a bloody civil war since 2011. Chinese workers cross the border into Kachin and go so far as to build their own roads to access valuable forests.

The enterprises appear chaotic on the surface, but EIA forest campaign team leader Faith Doherty said they are “an intricate and structured supply chain within which different players have defined functions and collude to ensure the logs keep flowing.”

The destruction could have long-term environmental impacts. “Local people in Kachin spoke of whole mountaintops being cleared of forest, leading to faster runoff of rain and flooding, as well as soil erosion,” Newman said.

The forests are also home to several threatened species, including the recently discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. The border towns that help facilitate the illegal lumber trade have also become hot spots for illegal wildlife trafficking of endangered animal parts from Africa and Asia. “At the Wanding crossing in Yunnan we saw ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales for sale,” Newman said.

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According to the report, Chinese workers were misled to believe that they were working legally in the timber trade. EIA said that in 2014 alone, at least 1,600 Chinese workers were sent to one region. More than 150 of them were arrested by the Myanmar military in January during a sweep that caused diplomatic strife between the two countries. (The workers were sentenced to life in jail but pardoned six months later.)

EIA has made several recommendations to try to stem the timber trade, including asking China to observe Malaysia’s existing log export ban and reforming the hongmu industry so it stops using illegal lumber, especially from endangered species. The organization also recommends that Myanmar temporarily reduce all its logging operations so it can assess the health of its forests.

Now may be the best time for change, not just owing to EIA’s investigation but because the issue has been made highly public by the recent arrests. “The case of the 155 arrested Chinese loggers has redrawn attention to the issue, not just in Yunnan but in the central government in Beijing,” Newman said.

As a result of the arrests, China and Myanmar’s forestry officials will sit down next week to discuss the issue.