Tue, Jul 17, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Beijing restricts timber from Myanmar but trade continues

By Mon Mon Myat  /  AFP , YANGON, MYANMAR

Environmentalists in Myanmar have expressed their shock at seeing mountains of logs being transported on trucks across the border into China despite efforts to halt the trade to save the country's forests from total destruction.

"I was shocked to see mountains of logs and big timber trucks" heading from Laiza into China, the spokeswoman for one local environment group, the Pan Kachin Development Society said.

On condition that she not be named, she said she had counted up to 80 trucks crossing the border each day during a visit to the town in April.

Stacks of teak, tamalan and other woods lined the roads waiting to go, she said.

"It seems they have set up sawmills in the forest and chopped the trees to be easier to carry," she said. "Some logs were only about one-and-a-half feet [0.45m] in circumference," although China usually wants trees nearly twice that size.

"That means that people even cut small trees because there are no more big trees left," she said.

The trade endures despite China's efforts to stop it because of a complex mix of interests.

For Myanmar's junta, timber is one of its major sources of desperately needed foreign currency.

MyanmarTwo main ethnic Kachin groups who have partial control over the region also see the timber trade as a key source of income and have shown varying degrees of willingness to stop it.

LAX ENFORCEMENT

Local Chinese authorities along the border have not consistently enforced the year-old ban, creating pockets where timber still flows across the border.

Laiza, a village about 1,000km north of Yangon, is the base for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of 17 armed ethnic groups to have signed ceasefires with Myanmar's military junta.

After the KIO signed its ceasefire in 1993, the group received a degree of autonomy in their part of Kachin State, a region sandwiched between China and India that is home to virgin forests as well as jade, gold and other mineral reserves.

Laiza quickly turned into a significant trading town, especially for timber which once flowed freely across the border about 16km away to feed China's insatiable appetite for raw materials.

HUGE APPETITE

Some 1.5 million cubic meters of timber worth US$350 million was exported from Myanmar to China in 2005, most of it illegal, according to Britain-based forestry watchdog Global Witness.

That was a 12 percent gain over the amount of timber shipped to China the year before, and roughly double the amount exported in 2000, Global Witness said.

China, which has imposed stiff limits on logging in its own forests amid fears of deforestation, uses the wood to supply its construction boom and its soaring exports of wooden furniture.

But in the face of international pressure that followed the Global Witness report, China decided a year ago to officially close its borders to Myanmar's timber.

Global Witness said one of its teams spent a couple of weeks on the border in April, and they believed the ban has had a major effect on the Chinese side, although some problems remain.

"What we are seeing from the Chinese side is there has been a ban in all areas along the border, no question about it," said Mike Davis, Global Witness team leader for the Southeast Asia forest campaign.

With scant data from Myanmar's government, environmental groups analyze Chinese import and logging data to estimate the size of the trade, but no precise data has been made available since the ban took effect last year.

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