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Environmental Group Says Chinese Demand Drives Illegal Logging in Burma

A report by the British environment group, Global Witness says Chinese authorities have not halted the massive trade in illegal timber coming from Burma. There are fears over the rate of deforestation in Burma and its long-term effect on the country's people.

The Global Witness report accuses Chinese logging companies of illegally exporting millions of cubic meters of timber from northern Burma.

The report focuses on the northern regions, where the timber trade is often run by Chinese companies, using thousands of Chinese workers, operating with support from provincial governments in China.

The report accuses Burmese army commanders and ethnic groups of being involved in trade.

Sussanne Kempel is with Global Witness.

"What we found was that two-thirds of the total Burmese exports of timber are illegal," said Sussanne Kempel. "The large majority of that goes to China. When we look at the timber trade between those two countries, more than 95 percent of it is illegal according to Burmese law and according to Chinese law."

Using Chinese customs statistics, the report says that more than one million cubic meters of timber each year cross from Burma's Kachin, Wa, and Shan states into China. This is in contrast to Burma's official limit on timber exports of just 18,000 cubic meters.

Forestry product exports are the third most important source of legal foreign exchange for Burma's military government - last year totaling $370 million.

But the report warns that excessive logging would hurt Burma's environment and potentially harm China's own forest management along the border. It also says many of the Burmese ethnic communities, who often rely on forests for food and other needs, receive little benefit from the logging.

Excessive logging can lead to soil erosion, flooding, loss of wildlife and damage to crops. On a global scale, some scientists say that over-logging of the world's oldest forests contributes to climate changes.

Ms. Kempel says the rate of deforestation in Burma is one of the fastest in Asia.

China's demand for imported timber has soared in recent years because of rapid economic growth and a ban on the felling of trees in much of China after over-logging contributed to flooding in much of the country.

Ms. Kempel says cease-fire agreements between Rangoon and some once-rebellious ethnic groups in Burma has exacerbated the problem, in part because peace means that people can concentrate on making a living and loggers can work more safely.

"Before the cease-fires there was very little logging taking place," she said. "They do not receive large amounts of aid or development from the Rangoon government, so they have been forced into a situation where their only means of generating money is selling of their forests."

But Ms. Kempel says there are indications the Chinese government is concerned about illegal logging, especially about the need to ensure sustainable timber imports for years to come. But so far, she says, China has not stood by commitments it made in 2001 on cooperating closely with Burma to protect the forests.

Global Witness is a British charity that investigates how environmentally destructive trade can be linked to human-rights abuse, poverty and other problems.