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How does political instability in the Mekong affect deforestation?

  • Myanmar’s return to military dictatorship earlier this year has sparked worries among Indigenous communities of possible land grabs.
  • It has also ignited concerns about a return to large-scale natural resource extraction, which has historically been an important source of funding for the junta.
  • In the months since the coup, many of the country’s environmental and land rights activists have either been arrested or gone into hiding.
  • The military has bombed forests and burned down Indigenous villages in Karen state, forcing minorities to flee to neighboring Thailand.

Myanmar’s rainforests, home to the endangered Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus), critically endangered Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and endangered lar gibbon (Hylobates lar), are some of the most biodiverse in the world. But the relative flatness of the terrain, and the valuable timber species found here, also make them particularly vulnerable to deforestation.

Between 2001 and 2020, Myanmar lost tree cover roughly the size of Switzerland, according to data from Global Forest Watch. Logging of teak and other hardwoods helped drive this degradation, with the forestry sector providing critical funding for the country’s military rulers.

In 2011, after 49 years of military rule, Myanmar saw a series of political reforms that led to a quasi-civilian government taking over in 2015. With greater space for dialogue, civil society thrived. Indigenous communities and NGOs ramped up efforts to protect Myanmar’s forests, consulting and lobbying policymakers to secure land rights and clamp down on forest crime.

Under the new government, they made progress: first came a ban on raw log exports in 2014, to slow deforestation and boost Myanmar’s own wood processing industries. Then came a logging ban from 2016 to 2017, followed by significant reductions in annual logging limits set by the state.

In early 2021, however, a coup brought back full military rule, sparking worries among Indigenous communities of land grabs and a return to large-scale natural resource extraction. Already, land and environmental activists find themselves increasingly under threat. Many have either been captured or have gone into hiding, fearing for their safety. Kyaw Minn Htut, a forest defender, was recently arrested along with his family for organizing in his community and monitoring and reporting on illegal logging activities.

With the military bombing forests and burning down Indigenous villages in Karen state, ethnic Karen minorities have also been fleeing to neighboring Thailand in the thousands. Their flight has put an end to long-running conservation programs in their forests, under which communities preserved key areas of forests for watersheds, established fish sanctuaries, and implemented agroforestry and shifting cultivation techniques.

Following the coup, governments in the U.S., Canada and Europe placed sanctions on Myanmar’s timber trade, as part of an international effort targeting industries whose profits are funding military operations. But even with sanctions in place, experts say illegal logging will likely continue, with the junta profiting from illicit overland sales to China.