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Drop in timber smuggling gives ‘breathing space’ to Myanmar’s forests

  • After reaching a near-peak in 2014, illegal timber trade from Myanmar to China appears to have dropped significantly in the last six months.
  • Analysts attribute this reduction largely to China’s economic stagnation and increasing publicity of timber smuggling.
  • However, conservationists caution the drop in flow is likely temporary.

After snowballing for years and culminating in a peak of nearly a million cubic meters of wood smuggled in 2014, the illegal timber trade between Myanmar and China appears to be faltering. The Environmental Investigation Agency reports a sharp downturn in the cross-border flow of wood in the last six months.

As China’s economy has boomed, so has its demand for wood products. In response, increasing pressure has been placed on the forests of neighboring countries as trees are felled for Chinese markets. Myanmar has been particularly affected, with a high of 1 million cubic meters of wood sold to China in 2005.

In response, the Yunnan provincial government attempted to stem the trade. The move was somewhat and temporarily successful – by 2008, some-270,000 cubic meters was moving between the border. However, in just a little over half a decade, volume once again reached near-peak levels, with around 900,000 cubic meters recorded in 2014. This, despite Myanmar’s implementation of a ban on log exports in March, 2014.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) issued a report in 2015, finding Chinese demand for valuable hardwoods like teak and rosewood was driving harvest. In 2013, for instance, Myanmar became the largest single supplier of rosewood to China, which is popular for furniture.

A road in Myanmar winds through once-forest near the Chinese border.
A road in Myanmar winds through a once-forested landscape near the Chinese border. Satellite image courtesy of Google Earth.
Myanmar's forests are home to many unique and threatened species, such as Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris). Photo by Titodutta via Wikimedia Commons (CC2.0).
Myanmar’s forests are home to many unique and threatened species, such as Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris). Photo by Titodutta via Wikimedia Commons (CC2.0).

Also called “hongmu,” rosewood comprises nearly three-dozen tree species around the world. However, while several countries have moved to protect their rosewood trees, China has not enacted any laws to do so – despite evidence that rosewood species have been declining in Southeast Asia’s forests for decades due to demand. Earlier this year, conservation groups and state governments called on CITES to extend protection to the three most sought-after rosewood species.

During their investigations, EIA observed far less timber-smuggling traffic crossing from Myanmar into China over the past six months. The group attributes this to increased publicity of the issue, China’s economic slowdown, and Myanmar’s general election this past November. A recent report by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) found an overall slowing of timber imports into China, with 2015 flow down 13 percent in volume and 32 percent in value compared to 2014.

“The sharp fall in timber volumes being smuggled into China provides a much-needed breathing space for the precious forests of Myanmar,” said Faith Doherty, of EIA’s Forest Campaign.

Still, EIA isn’t holding its breath that this downturn represents a permanent trend, pointing to the big jump in exports after 2005 as a probable harbinger of things to come. The group says that for things to really change, China needs to recognize Myanmar’s 2014 ban on timber exports and both countries need to work harder to close the border to smuggling.

“For too long, the authorities in both countries have turned a blind eye to this backdoor route for logs illegally cut in Myanmar to feed China’s massive wood-processing sector,” Doherty said. “What is needed now is for both countries to cooperate on achieving a permanent closure of the border to timber trade. An important first step would be for China to formally recognise its neighbour’s export ban on logs.”

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