RANGOON - Burma’s more than $6 billion trade in illegal timber has continued despite attempts to limit logging, according to a new report released by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and a logging export ban set to begin April 1 may not be enough to save the country's shrinking forests.
According to official figures, 6.4 million cubic meters of raw timber logs have been exported from Burma, also called Myanmar, since the year 2000.
But that number is less than one-third of the amount of timber that global buyers have reported purchasing from the country during the same period, according to the EIA, an independent environmental advocacy group.
The discrepancy points to the booming trade in illegal exports, which EIA estimates are worth nearly $6 billion. The environmental group says its studies indicate that almost half of the wood felled in Burma is illegal, but widespread corruption hides the true extent of the country’s illegal logging.
Faith Doherty of the EIA calls the government’s lack of transparency over the issue "staggering."
"Well basically you've got a big gap, where has that money gone, and who has it?" Doherty said. "Where is the 6 billion and where is it being spent? Corruption runs deep, from the government all the way down."
Myanmar Timber Enterprise, a military-owned company, oversees all legal timber trade, and grants logging concessions.
Government data indicate that Burma's forests, some of the largest untouched virgin forests in Asia, shrank by one-fifth, from 58 percent to 47 percent between 1990 and 2010.
Now, as Burma’s economy opens up, the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry is planning to implement new conservation-driven measures to facilitate Burma's entry into U.S. and EU markets. The new measures include a logging export ban that would keep raw, unprocessed timber from leaving the country starting April 1.
"When we start the log export ban the price of wood already is up in Yunnan province they can ask more price, higher price, so it can benefit to them," said Barber Cho, joint-secretary of the Myanmar Timber Merchants Association.
The export ban has not yet been signed into law, and is expected to be difficult to enforce considering the majority of the country's wood is traded illegally. Although sawed logs can be exported legally under the ban, wood processing in Burma is substandard due to poor infrastructure and electricity.
Influential businessmen with close links to the military are considered to be the main beneficiaries of the illegal logging practices. According to Forest Trends researcher Kevin Woods, these business cronies stand to earn even larger profits after the ban.
"What the Burmese call crony companies haven't lost so much of their businesses, they've lost the monopoly on most of the resource extraction sector," said Woods. "But they're still involved in it heavily. This is especially true for logging."
Woods says even with the planned caps on timber harvests, well-connected businessmen have obtained logging areas under the pretenses of palm oil concessions, and are expected to continue logging at unsustainable rates.
Environmental groups are urging the government to strictly enforce the export ban, improve transparency in forestry management and prosecute illegal loggers.
The exact size of Burma's remaining forests is contentious. The last comprehensive survey was undertaken in 1953, and although conservationists have done extensive mapping with satellite images in the past few years, observers says the debate over the definition of forest land has led the government to overstate the quantity and quality of forest coverage.