- Investigative reporter Emmanuel Freudenthal and photographer and videographer Nathan Siegel take you behind the scenes of their reporting.
- The report is one of a multi-part series on illegal logging in Myanmar, published this week by Mongabay.
- More reporting, photography, and a short docu-video in this series can be found at Mongabay.com.
KATHA, Myanmar – The train rocked from side to side like a sketchy funhouse. It was the rainy season in northern Myanmar and we had been traveling for nearly a week. For the next couple of weeks, we would follow the colossal Irrawaddy River upstream until it bent to lick the Chinese border. We had come to document Myanmar’s export of timber to China, an illegal trade that has been depleting the country’s forests over decades.
Our team comprised the usual journalism trinity: a fixer-translator, Mary*; photographer Nathan; and a writer, Emmanuel. Our first target was the forest near Katha, a quiet town bordering the Irrawaddy, where we thought it would be easy to find loggers and then follow the logs to China.
Searching for loggers
After a night in Katha, early in the morning, we set out enthusiastically on a day trip to the forest. It’s just a little bit farther, our guide said, but it seemed like we never got any closer. After shaking across bumpy roads for hours on tiny motorbikes, breaking down twice, and driving over a suicidal chicken (RIP), we were exhausted, but we had finally made it to the forest!
A local contact of our fixer introduced us to a logger whom we followed to his forest work site. Surrounded by trees, we chatted with him, feet in ensconced in mud, hands swatting mosquitoes and skin sweating. Our first interviewee, and the only person around, turned out to be more of a heroin addict and small-time laborer than the chainsaw-wielding serial logger we had hoped for.
Nevertheless, he told us something crucial: virtually nobody logs during the monsoon season. You can see why, he said, motioning to the swarms of mosquitoes around us. Somehow none of the dozen researchers and fixers we’d talked to before our trip had mentioned that logging comes to halt with the seasonal rains.
The story we had spent months researching and planning had just gotten severely and literally bogged down. With night quickly falling, we scooped up what remained of our crushed spirits and headed back to Katha. The headlight of the bike rented by Emmanuel and Mary was broken, so they used the flashlight app on a smartphone to find their way back to the hotel through the freezing night.
“Our bad luck is all because you murdered that chicken,” Nathan said to Emmanuel at one point.
Our spirits had hit rock bottom.
We were just about to leave Katha in anger to try our luck elsewhere. But the next day, we talked to a local farmer and NGO member who would set our journey on a new direction.
A new focus
As the farmer smiled and quietly puffed on a cigarette (all environmentalists smoke, he jokingly explained), he told us that charcoal was exported from Myanmar to China to produce metal. This sounded odd, but promising. Glancing at each other, we tried to contain our excitement. Was this the break we were looking for? Or another dead end?
Emmanuel, a calming and even force on the trip, seemed to allow himself a bit of hope.
“I forgot how much reporting is like a rollercoaster,” he said. Hopefully we would start climbing to something promising – and exit before the hair-raising fall that inevitably follows.
That night after Nathan made the dubious claim that the soup noodles were “the best we’ve had so far,” we furiously searched the internet for any mentions of this charcoal trade. Nothing turned up apart from a brief paragraph in a December 2014 Forest Trends report which stated that “charcoal now represents 32 percent of Myanmar’s total timber product exports to China.” And that this “is likely prohibited by Myanmar law.”
Emmanuel noted he wasn’t sure whether we had set upon a great story or a wild goose chase.
The following week, we met with dozens of charcoal producers and traders scattered along the riverbank near Katha. All the producers were small-scale farmers who said they sought to supplement their income by smoking wood in large kilns in their backyard. Many had logged teak and other valuable hardwood species in years past, but greater restrictions and the exhaustion of these trees made the business unviable.
Instead, villagers were cutting the trees that remained after companies had cleared the forests for huge profits. That confirmed that the charcoal production is real. But does it go to China’s factories, or just feed local cooking stoves?
We had to follow the charcoal trail. We became obsessed with spotting the pale green bags filled with those lumpy chunks of charred wood.
Several traders near Katha explained that they load the bags on large boats that then fight the current of the mighty Irrawaddy River by going upstream to a town called Bhamo, near the Chinese border. From there, it seemed logical to guess that the charcoal is then loaded onto trucks and smuggled into China.
Following these bags to China was not straightforward because it crossed areas where an armed conflict had been simmering since the 1960s, pitting the Kachin ethnic group against Burmese government forces.
The Kachin Independence Army and its political wing are incredibly well-organized for a non-state armed group. They have a nice website, trendy Facebook page, decent schools, healthcare and the other trimmings of an established state. At the time we visited the area, it was rather quiet and foreigners were not being targeted by the Kachin army. But despite the appearance of order and normalcy, the government strictly controls the movement of visitors, which meant that many places were out of our reach.
To follow the green bags, we needed to jump on a boat to Bhamo. A port official told us that this was not allowed for foreigners. He advised we take the funhouse train ride back to Mandalay and then fly to Bhamo, which would have lost us at least two days.
Luckily, we were stubborn enough to inquire elsewhere, until we found a boat operator who agreed to take us. The boat was large with wooden seats that were inexplicably suspended so high above the hull that our feet dangled when we sat. The toilets at the back were a couple of planks suspended above the churning water.
Yet the stunning landscape of the Irrawaddy River with its alternating pastures and steep, forested banks offered up one of those days where journalism mingles with tourism.
Following the charcoal trail
Bhamo is a bustling riverside town 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Myanmar’s border with China, and was born out of the trade between the two countries. Every day, trucks leave with raw products such as rice, pineapple or charcoal. They head to Lwegel, a town which straddles the border between the two countries. Once they’ve dropped their load, the trucks return filled to the brim with electronics, motorbikes and a flurry of consumer goods.
In Bhamo, we spoke with the transporters of the charcoal trade: truck and boat drivers, who confirmed that exporting charcoal was illegal. We estimated the bribes to military officials, police and forest officers as potentially adding up to millions of dollars.
Once we had established that Bhamo was a crucial nexus of the charcoal route to China, and had elected our favorite street-side restaurant, it was time to follow the green bags to their next stop: China.
We knew that the road from Bhamo to a town straddling the border with China called Lwegel, it was off limits to foreigners. But we decided to see how far we could go before being stopped – we hoped to witness a checkpoint where truck drivers must pay bribes to officials. Riding motorbikes, we trailed a truck and sped through the first checkpoint just fast enough to catch bewildered stares from the police.
The second checkpoint was our goal because we had been told the trucks had to queue there. Less than two kilometers from our target, Mary, who was on her own bike, suddenly slowed down. She talked with two men dressed casually, who turned out to be plainclothes officers. Unsure, we continued. With the checkpoint in sight, we were passed by a motorbike mounted by a bitter-faced military officer in a green uniform. He was yelling, “Hey! Hey! Stop!” As it was hard to ignore him, we pulled over. The officer continued to berate us: “Not allowed! Turn around!” We did as we were told – adventure over.
Well, adventure diverted.
After four days of arduous travel, we would arrive just 60 kilometers (40 miles) from where the officer had stopped us, while Mary stayed in Myanmar. To see the next step in the charcoal’s journey, we had to fly back to Mandalay, stay there overnight, then fly to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. From Kunming, we still had to drive over 750 kilometers (655 miles), which would take us two long days.
In Kunming, we rented motorcycles. As we set out, the rain started falling harder and harder, drenching us. The first day riding was spent soaking in the rain – when Nathan spoke to his girlfriend on the phone, he described it as “taking a four-hour cold shower in a wind tunnel … while not moving an inch.”
Nevertheless, this was probably the most beautiful wind tunnel in the world. We slid along rolling hills and impressive canyons, carpeted with lush green forest.
We had nearly reached our stop for the first night, the tourist city of Dali, when Emmanuel’s bike broke down at a gas station. The rollercoaster was heading steeply downward. Despite the valiant efforts of a random passerby at a gas station, intermediated by a translation app on our smartphones, we had to call the guy who rented us the bikes. We waited for him in the gas station restaurant, trying to dry and warm up a little bit.
The rental guy became our knight in shining armor, riding to us in his white minivan, with his trusty mechanic in tow. After three hours, the knight and his sidekick fixed the motorbike. With daylight long gone, we were back on the road. It was still raining and the wind tunnel hadn’t been shut down, but we managed to make it to Dali. The next day, we reached Ruili, a town hosting the main border crossing between Myanmar and China.
For a few days, we rode our motorbikes around to small border towns. The border was sometimes just a ditch, and we found a road were trucks freely passed from one country to the other, some of them loaded with charcoal. Armed with a smartphone at the end of a pink selfie stick – embodying a tourist’s caricature – we filmed charcoal warehouses. We saw 10-meter-high (nearly 40 feet) piles of the pale green bags we were hunting for.
Then we rode farther inland to find smelting factories, whose GPS coordinates we had marked on the map. There, we filmed the charcoal being thrown into burning ovens. That was the final step of the charcoal’s journey that we wanted to document.
After all this, we made the two-day ride back to Kunming to return the bikes. The final day, the rain poured down as we pulled into town. It was a fitting end to a reporting trip during monsoon season, we said.
Despite the foul weather, we were smiling, having gathered all the facts and photos we needed for our story. We were back on top of the roller coaster – our final stop.
Banner image: A boat travels along a tributary to the Irrawaddy River. Photo by Nathan Siegel for Mongabay.
*Name has been changed for the safety of the individual.
Emmanuel Freudenthal is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared internationally and he can be found on Twitter at @EmmanuelFreuden. Nathan Siegel is a photographer and videographer focusing on international environmental issues. He can be found on Instagram at @npsiegel.
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