Interview

Unless sanctions on Myanmar lifted, the country may have no trees left: Interview with timber association

Barber Cho argues that forests "should be considered equally to human rights."
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Clearing of the Myinbyin Forest Range, Central Burma. Courtesy of United Nations Photo.

Myanmar - BEIJING, China (18 November, 2011)__ Economic sanctions are severely limiting Myanmar’s economy prompting the government to overly lean on logging as a way to prop up the state budget, said a representative of the country’s timber association, warning that there may be “no trees left” unless the trade embargo is lifted.

The government has cut more trees than allowed under a sustainable forest management system as it had no other choice to fund the budget, said Barber Cho of the Myanmar Timber Merchants Association at the sidelines of the Asia Forest Partnership (AFP) Dialogue 2011 in Beijing last week. “The sanctions are intended for the 55 million people of Myanmar, but because of deforestation and climate change, all 7 billion people (on Earth) have to suffer,” he said.

The US and EU have placed Myanmar under economic sanctions in response to rights abuses by the nation’s former military leaders. Myanmar, which exports timber to countries including India, Thailand and Malaysia, lost about 310,000 hectares of forests annually in the past decade, the second highest rate in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, according to the latest State of the World’s Forests report, issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Myanmar is estimated to have 31.7 million hectares of forests left, or 48 percent of its total area, the report said. Pressures to forests in Asia are expected to increase as demands for timber and related-products, such as pulp and paper, rise with the growing middle-class in the region.

In the past year, the Myanmar government has made several measures to show that democracy in the country is improving, including by releasing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest and about 200 political prisoners. As a result, Myanmar won support from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and was announced to be chair of the group in 2014.

An edited transcript of the interview with Cho is provided below.

Q: What is the biggest achievement in the forestry sector in the past 10 years?

A: The achievement is the (increased) public awareness. Now they understand and appreciate environmental values, while previously forests were just for monetary benefits and to get economic gains. There were a lot of natural catastrophes in our region: the tsunami in 2004, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and in 2011 the tsunami in Japan. These disasters make a lot of different stakeholders understand environmental values so when they draw policies, they consider these values. That’s the achievement.

(Note: Cyclone Nargis, which arrived in Myanmar on 2 May 2008, was the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, with an estimated 138,000 fatalities. The cyclone hit the populous Irrawaddy Delta, which had lost most of its mangrove forests along the coast that would have been a defense against the violent storms.)

Barber Cho of the Myanmar Timber Merchants Association (middle) speaks at the Asia Forest Partnership (AFP) Dialogue 2011.

Q: What kind of forestry policies does Myanmar have?

A: The forest belongs to the government and only the government can issue the permit to cut. Actually we have the allowable annual cuts set according to the forest management, but they (the government) do not follow this.

The problem is compliance and implementation. It’s not about the policy, not about regulations. Compliance is really weak because of we have a conflict of interest between forest management and forest income. Although the highest authorities — the government — understand the value of environment, they have no choice when they need (to fund) the country’s budget that they have to cut and sell logs. This is a big problem.

Myanmar is under the (economic) sanctions of the U.S. and EU because of human rights problem. We appreciate the action of the West because they like to safeguard the interest of human rights in Myanmar. But they also have to consider the contra-productivity (of the sanctions). What we’re afraid of is that once human rights are restored to the normal standards (in Myanmar), at that time, maybe there will be no trees left.

The sanctions are intended for the 55 million people of Myanmar, but because of deforestation and climate change, all 7 billion people (on Earth) have to suffer. I always wonder (about this). I’m not against the sanctions, but (the importance of) forests should be considered equally to human rights.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in forestry in Myanmar?

A: The biggest challenge is the political will. Once we have the political will and commitment from the government to do sustainable forest management, we won’t have any problem at all, because we already have a good system. Forest management is already 150 years old — our system was laid down by the British. So once the government has the political will to do according to our regulation and our policy, we’ll have no problem.

Q: What are your hopes for Myanmar’s forestry in the next 5 years?

A: I hope the government understands the (importance of) environmental values. Very recently the ministry of forestry was changed into the ministry of the implementation of conservation and forestry. This means the government is very positive on the implementation of conservation, so we’re very encouraged. Secondly, we are getting some income from oil and gas. Previously the government always sets an income target for the ministry of forestry, but now they’ve stopped (setting such targets) because they have an additional source of income. So I have high hopes.

CIFOR will have a team of experienced writers covering the climate change negotiations and events of COP17 to be held in Durban, South Africa from November 28 to December 9. Follow stories related to forests, REDD+, food security and climate change on CIFOR’s Forests Blog and @CIFOR_forests on twitter. Get involved in Forest Day 5, the biggest global platform on forestry and climate change, by tracking the hashtag #FD5 on twitter

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  • James

    During 2010, the import value of the natural gas which Thailand imported from Myanmar (/ Burma) was roughly four times greater than all the timber which importing countries imported from Myanmar.

    Consequently, Myanmar does not need to authorise logging of its rapidly diminishing forest at levels persistently in excess of annual allowable cut – “to secure funds for development”. The new government is unlikely to build a new capital city and should spend less on the military than SPDC/SLORC.

    Curiously, the preamble to the interview fails to mention China (which with India accounts for some 70% of quantity of timber officially imported from Myanmar). Most of that timber (roughly US$200 million) is imported into China overland via Yunnan and is illegal not least because little is authorised by the Myanmar government and China prohibits the import of timber overland from Myanmar.

    Rather than further over-exploiting the forest which it controls, the Myanmar government (with others if necessary) should lobby China to stop importing clearly illegal timber.