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Out of the woods: Can Burma's great forests be saved?

Sailing through the green heart of Burma on the country's great rivers, the last thing on Pandaw passengers' minds is a shortage of trees. Especially in the high country, richly-forested Burma remains an exceptionally green and pleasant land.

Follow the Burmese media, and listen to the debates of NGOs concerned with the country's development and conservation, and it becomes is clear that the country already has a major problem with deforestation, with the threat of much more to come.

A new generation of Burmese environmental activists, supported by foreign experts with an international perspective, are pressuring the emerging new, more democratically- accountable Burmese regime to improve the prospects of the country's "forest estate" for the greater good of the Burmese people.

Illegal logging is rife, especially of the country's celebrated durable hardwoods – Teakwood, Pyinkado, Paduak and others, which command high prices worldwide exceptional utility for flooring, outdoor furniture, boat-building and many other uses.

Those intent on exposing the illicit exploitation of this resource – journalists and campaigners – face harassment or worse at the hands of various ruthless and sometimes well- connected operators, who ply a shadowy international trade with counterparts in China and elsewhere. But despite the difficulties in monitoring illegal activity spread over such vast and inaccessible territory, important work is being done, notably by the UK-US charity the Environmental Investigation Agency to expose the dynamics and methods of those who profit in this harmful, greed-fuelled and short-termist activity.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, Burma lost as much as 19%, a staggering 7,445,000 hectares (28,750 sq miles), of forest between 1990 and 2010.  The profitable exploitation of timber resource started under British imperialism, but since independence in 1948, when forest still covered 70% of Burma, the pace has quickened as mechanisation has advanced.

As of 2014 that figure is now down to around 48%, a truly cataclysmic rate of depletion.

Increasingly effective intervention has slowed the rate of decline, from 0.95% per year in the years 1990-2010 to about 0.3% per year – slower than in Indonesia or Vietnam. Nevertheless, this is still a problem that Pandaw, which trades on its rare access to Burma's fabulously-canopied interior, is keenly concerned with. We want to see the rate of exploitation stabilised for good.

To understand the scale of the problem, we consulted Dr Oliver Springate-Baginski, a lecturer in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia, and one of the world's leading experts on Burma's forest economy.

Burma deforestation problem

Pictures courtesy of the EIA

Dr Springate-Baginski -  or Oliver if we may -  spoke in November 2016 at the Britain-Burma Society in London on the issue, and his passion for the subject is palpable, as is his tendency to call a spade a spade.

An LSE-trained economic historian, who took a PhD in Indian natural resource governance at SOAS's geography department, since 2008 Oliver has worked closely with environmental activists, notably U Win Myo Thu of the NGO EcoDev, trying to restore patterns of Burmese forest ownership that have long since been lost, first to British colonialist exploiters of Burmese forest resources, then to the no less rapacious actions of the Burmese military dictatorship. Described in NGO jargon as "civil society capacity building", his painstaking work recognises that the best way to sustain and restore Burma's great forests is to restore ownership rights stripped away by the British and never restored after independence. Under British rule, the rich timber resources of Burma were purloined by the Raj in a succession of legislative acts which gradually extinguished indigenous rights over Burma's great forests.

Even harvesting their own wood, including for firewood or for construction of dwellings was eventually criminalised, and large swathes, mainly in Rakhine and Tenasserim were massively depleted, although by the turn of the century, the British were attempting some form of rational reforestation.

If Burma's forest-dwellers thought that independence from the British would restore their ancient customary rights to the forest, they were sadly mistaken. Not only did an independent Burma fail to reform a dysfunctional system, but its forest departments were at least as feudalistic in outlook as the British had been, exercising huge powers, and prone to epic corruption.

Some of Burma's military dictators saw the forest as a natural piggy bank, to be raided at will in exchange for badly-needed foreign currency.    With the gradual loosening of military rule, says Oliver:

"Now the government wants to give it back, but it's complicated. The general policy of the government hasn't been simply to dissolve the state-controlled forest estate. They have 'de-gazetted' some areas so that the people who live there are no longer considered squatters, but they haven't been given private tenure either. The Land Records Department hasn't registered them as the owners, basically because they haven't paid the bribes, so business people who have paid the bribes become the owners."
"Another thing is they are doing is granting large areas to communities but with strings attached. But often communities don't want to get into complex relationship with the government. You could say that reforms from the Forest Department are well meaning but they are gradual and marginal."

The hope of land reformers is that a new land policy developed by Burma's Ministry of Environment, will lead to new land law, which, it is hoped, will endorse a right to land tenure, and a comprehensive and integrated land and forestry policy - one that will sustain proper forestry management. Meanwhile Burma's ethnic populations, are asserting the claim to customary land rights in their domain. These peoples have no wish to be in thrall to the Forestry Department for the government of large areas of land that they want to administer in their customary way.

Burma deforestation problem

Pictures courtesy of the EIA

Despite the bureaucratic barriers to creating the kind of people-centric forest management that campaigners like Oliver strive for, he is reasonably optimistic that Burma is on the right path, at least relative to what is happening elsewhere in the world.

"I think that if you look around the world you can't escape concluding that things are going catastrophically badly for the environment, given the destructive combination of masses of population with rising consumer expectations, along with ruthless corporations willing to supply them."
"Ironically Burma is one of the more optimistic places I have been to, because they have had had this disastrous period of dictatorship, and there is such a strong desire amongst civil society to turn things around. Countries that have had it really bad have plenty of room for improvement!"
"It was HG Wells who said we are in a race between education and catastrophe, and in Burma the real crux is the long history of abuse of power by ruthless large-scale business interests. Facing down that power is the challenge, and if we can do that, then things will get easier for Burma's forestry."

After decades – or centuries – of exploitation, Burma has the chance to ensure to patch up and enrichen what the WWII jungle fighter General William Slim called the "great rumpled green carpet" that accounts for so much of this nation's biodiversity and natural wealth. As a late starter in the job of reparation, it also has that great advantage that has changed the development dynamic throughout the post-colonial world: the chance to learn from others' mistakes.

Pictures courtesy of the EIA

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