Myanmar moves to cut down illegal logging

MYANMAR - Myanmar the world's top producer of teak, has indicated that it will join a European timber certification programme in a move that will open up new markets for its products.

More significantly, it will trigger reforms to check the rampant illegal logging that has dramatically reduced the country's once- famed forest cover.

Myanmar produces about 75 per cent of the global supply of teak, which is sold mainly to China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Myanmar's timber exports last year amounted to US$30 million (S$38 million), according to reports quoting its wood industry estimates.

But there is a large illegal trade in logs for which little official data is available.

What is recognised is that it is an inextricably political problem and rampant in border areas, such as the northern Kachin state, over which Naypyidaw has only tenuous control. Ethnic rebel groups, and local businessmen with political backing, fell trees and sell the logs across the border in China to fund their activities.

The extraction of such "conflict" timber has dramatically denuded many forest areas, especially in Kachin state. Officially, Myanmar claims to have a forest cover of over 40 per cent, the highest in ASEAN. But experts believe it is far lower, probably below 30 per cent.

Deputy forestry minister Aye Myint Maung told Parliament this week that nearly 70 tonnes of illegal logs were seized by the authorities between April 2011 and June this year.

Illegal loggers were taking advantage of instability in border areas to extract timber, he added.

Myanmar is currently overhauling its forest laws. Among the measures planned is the creation of a forest police agency to counter illegal logging gangs.

A ban on the export of raw logs from next April has also been announced.

The aim of the ban is to reduce timber extraction, qualify for carbon credits, and force importing countries to set up value-adding wood-based industries in Myanmar.

Joining the European certification programme, known as Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, requires importers and sellers of timber and wood products to keep records of the sources of their supplies. This will help to eliminate illegal forest produce.

But it is a long process, according to analysts.

"It takes years because it's not just about trade, it's about governance too," said one analyst.

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