The easiest way to reach the Da Gwin guard post is to take a boat along the Salween River, a natural frontier between Myanmar and Thailand. In this area of Myanmar’s Karen State, which has been under the control of the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) for more than 50 years, roads are few and forests predominate. The post is home to 17 soldiers, a unit belonging to the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), one of the KNU’s two military branches, who check everything that goes in and out of the rebel-held area.
They pay special attention to logs. Myanmar has some of the most extensive forests left in Asia. Forty-five per cent of the country is forested, according to official statistics, and a quarter of that is primary forest. However, the country also has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the region.
For decades, the military junta that rules Myanmar and the rebel groups that oppose the government, mainly in the north and east of the country, have grasped at the riches that logging delivers. The pace slowed between 2005 and 2010, when international pressure had some effect, but the rate of deforestation has never been as fast as it has since 2010, when a democratisation process began that put in power a semi-civilian government in 2011, after five decades of military rule.
Not everyone is chopping with wild abandon, however.
“It used to be our business, but it is not anymore, because we realised that the deforestation was too high,” says Saw Ba Tun, head of the KNU’s Forestry Department. In 2009, the KNU outlawed most forms of logging. It also recognised the rights of communities to manage the forest surrounding the areas in which they lived.
The troops based in Da Gwin are just some of the 70 soldiers who, along with more than 100 villagers, have been combatting illegal logging, which, they say, has been on the rise in the area since the KNU signed a ceasefire with the central government, in 2012.
For centuries, people in the area have relied on the forests for their survival. The trees provide the villagers with food, water and medicine, and, the locals believe, shelter protective spirits.
“If the environment is destroyed, we may have diseases and suffer from drought. We want to see the area green forever but some people come and damage the environment,” says Saw Bleh Way, head of the mountain village Hsaw Mae Pu, where about 125 people make a living from terrace farming. The village joined forces with the KNDO illegal-logging unit in 2012 and, since then, a quartet of villagers regularly patrol the area.
“We do a checking trip once a week. In the last two years we have seen more than 30 people logging illegally,” says Saw Bleh Way.
The soldiers regularly patrol the forest, too, and along the Salween River.
“We don’t allow any logging in this area, except for the basic needs of housing and boat construction,” says Saw Pah Hsit, 27, the captain in charge of the KNDO anti-logging unit. “And, it has to be approved beforehand.
“It is a vast area. It is not easy to control everything. We ask the villagers to inform us about what they see but not to take action, because loggers sometimes have guns.”
Many in his unit are very young soldiers who joined up to fight for an independent Karen State.
“I planned to join the [Karen] army because I have always seen the oppression by the Burmese soldiers,” says 19-year-old Saw Lah Htoo, who has been serving with the KNDO for a year. “Protecting our forests and their wildlife is also a way to fight for our independence.”
The Da Gwin post, which is less than two years old, stands partly on a sandy strip that sticks out into the Salween, where boats can put in easily. Onshore is a sign that says, in English and Karen, “Welcome to Kaw Htoo Lte”, which is what locals call Karen State.
The state flag – a red rising sun on a blue background – flies over the sign. Next to it is a checkpoint at which everyone crossing into Kaw Htoo Lte is stopped and a small path that leads to a smattering of the bamboo huts: home to the soldiers.
“[The Da Gwin post] was set up to provide more control over what is happening around the river,” says Saw Pah Hsit. The Salween is used to transport logs and wildlife to Thailand and the bigger cities in Myanmar. “We have captured more than 50 people in just one year around this area,” he adds. “Smuggling is on the rise.”
The political transition – another step in which will be taken today, with the country’s first general elections since the military junta stepped down in 2011 – has brought new momentum to the exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources, including its forests.
According to a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will adopt a zerodeforestation policy if it is elected.
“The NLD has declared that no tree will be cut, not even for charcoal or any other consumption,” says U Nyan Win. “We will give some substitution solutions, like gas for the charcoal.”
However, even if the NLD does win the election, which seems likely, it will find it difficult to form a government, as 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for the military. It’s therefore highly unlikely the nation’s forestry policy will change significantly.
ACCORDING TO FIGURES provided by Myanmar’s Forest Department, the country lost an average of 445,000 hectares of forest per year between 1990 and 2000 (0.6 per cent of the forest) and 320,000 hectares per year from 2000 to 2010. That figure has jumped to 566,000 hectares per year since 2010.
Between 2011 and 2013, the volume of timber exported – logs, sawn wood, plywood, veneer and furniture – leaped from about 2.7 million cubic metres to more than 3.3 million, according to a report by NGO Forest Trends. And the government is allowing for much more: “We have a policy to keep 30 per cent of the total land area reserved for forests and 10 per cent must be protected area by 2030, according to our 30-year master plan,” says the Forest Department.
“This wave of deforestation [largely from Kachin State, another area of conflict] is being mainly driven by demand from the wood processing industries and plantation sectors in China, Vietnam and Thailand,” says a recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
These countries, says the EIA, have tougher controls regarding their own natural forests and have turned to Myanmar in search of teak and rosewood.
In Karen State, “based on our reports, recently there have been more cases of land grabs to obtain logs”, says Way Lay, advocacy coordinator of the independent Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).
Who the perpetrators are is not always clear. The villagers and KNDO soldiers accuse the Myanmese army, locally known as the Tatmadaw, and the Border Guard Forces, a militia group created in 2009 to assimilate rebel groups into the central army.
Because they realise what they are doing is dubious, either legally or morally, the soldiers “use the villagers to cut the trees and buy from them”, complains KNDO trooper Saw Hser Pweh Mao.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, another rebel group in the area, and the Border Guard Forces are logging, but “on a very small scale”, claims Saw Ba Tun. The Myanmar government claims its forces are involved in “many operations … that tackle the illegal logging trade”, including operations with other armed forces.
The KHRG points to companies and wealthy individuals who are appropriating land to mine gold and stone, and chop down timber, and also implicates the central army, government officials and every armed group in the area – including the KNU – in the practice.
A Karen log dealer I meet in Yangon, where he sells the timber he buys from both legal and illegal sources, says that it is now more difficult to buy logs from the KNU-controlled areas but it is still possible, since those officials don’t receive salaries and still try to make a living from the wood or bribes given by loggers. The price is higher for logs from KNU areas, though, so the trader, who asks to remain anonymous, buys only from Myanmar-government-controlled areas and says that he pays about US$100 in bribes to the authorities for each track (between 2.5 and three tons of timber) to get a shipment into Yangon.
SAW PAH HSIT’S MORNING patrol has been eventful. His unit had returned to a spot on the riverbank where logs had been seen and, after a few minutes searching the forest, re-emerged with guns pointed at two skinny villagers carrying a chainsaw.
“They can be confined for up to three months of forced labour, building roads or weaving leaves for the community, when they are caught doing illegal logging,” says the captain.
The nearby Ei Tu Hta camp houses about 2,000 people who have sought refuge from clashes between the Myanmese army and the Karen National Liberation Army, the KNU’s larger armed wing, since 2006. In the camp, elections are held every two years to choose the main representatives and the larger issues are handled by committee.
“Whenever there is a problem related to crime or logging, we call for a meeting and decide the punishment,” explains Naw Pyone Pyone, a Karen Women’s Organisation representative at the camp. “But we can only punish people living in the camp. If they live in other villages, they will be tried there.”
The two loggers live in Ei Tu Hta and claim that the head of security affairs for the camp asked them to find logs with which to repair the boat he uses to patrol the river. A committee meets and confirms the story, and the loggers are released with a warning.
“In the area under our control, we allow the communities to handle their issues but according to our laws,” says Saw Ba Tun. But the dispensation of justice in the region is not always that clear cut.
“Legality is context dependent, and depends on which authority is deploying this word,” says Kevin Woods, a Forest Trends researcher.
KNU Forest Policy guidelines forbid most kinds of logging whereas national legislation allows timber harvesting through concessions given by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. The 2012 ceasefire has confused matters – “modified procedures” that facilitate logging with a minimum of legal compliance are now widely followed – and a national peace deal signed last month by the KNU could result in a further convergence of policies.
The Myanmar government has been trying to gain more control over logging, partly in order to deprive the rebel groups of this source of revenue.
“Since the mid-2000s … timber extraction has been increasingly directed through military-state channels and their preferred private businessmen [known as ‘crony companies’] and then legally exported on ships out of Yangon ports,” said a November 2013 Forest Trends report. Since April 1 last year, however, an export ban – a response to international criticism of the rapid loss of forests in the country – has been in place, but the cross-border trade continues, claims the EIA.
Between the Da Gwin post and the Ei Tu Hta refugee camp, the words “No dam” are scrawled on several rocks. Logging is not the only threat local communities face. Nearby is the proposed site for the Hat Gyi dam, a US$2.6-billion hydroelectric project led by China’s Sinohydro Corporation and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand that will displace thousands of people if its reservoir is filled, and will decimate fish numbers in local waterways.
Hat Gyi is one of six dams proposed for the main stretch of the Salween River, one of Asia’s last untamed waterways. The dam plans are increasing tensions in the region and some fear that they will reignite the fighting between the government and ethnic groups.
“The construction of this dam cannot proceed without our agreement,” claims Saw Ba Tun. “According to the current proposal, the electricity and the benefits of the dams will go to the government, and to China and Thailand, but not to [Karen] civilians.”
Myanmar is developing fast, but not all of its citizens are benefitting.
Residents of the sleepy Ei Tu Hta camp do not see a bright future without the leaves they weave to make roofs for houses in the area, including on the Thai side of the border. They fear that the supply of food coming from The Border Consortium, the main donor to the refugees who live along the Thai-Myanmar border, will soon end, meaning the leaves will be even more critical to their survival.
Those who live in the surrounding villages also fear the loss of the forest; their life-support system is disappearing fast and they are doing what they can to hang on to it.