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Myanmar's military coup linked to illegal deforestation

Image credit: Dreamstime, BH

Satellite images show evidence suggesting that Myanmar's recent coup d'état increased the risk of unsustainable deforestation in the country. As sanctions emerge, the situation may be ripe for escalation. Experts say the military junta wants to make quick cash to finance its oppressive regime.

A crackdown by Myanmar's military government on unarmed protesters left many dead and the country in chaos. The military junta's violent rule introduced on 1 February with a coup d’état has had other sad consequences, namely an increased risk for the environment. 

Apart from the mass protests since the military seized control, there is evidence emerging that under the new regime, unsustainable deforestation has burgeoned. The main driver is profit, marked by illegal timber sales the military confiscated in the past, experts say. 

Open-data I reviewed confirms large-scale forest clearing even before the coup and the amount of clearing and felling did increase in 2020 compared to 2019.

However, since the coup in February, experts are particularly worried that the flood gates have opened to illegal activity, as international oversight and trade partnerships deteriorate. This would open the way for sinister activities. Previously illegal deforested wood by the military would now be put on sale to neighbouring states that fail to question its legitimacy. 

Satellite imagery and data provided by Planet Labs, Google Earth and Global Forest Watch validate concern by environmental expert groups focusing on conflict zones.

The British monitoring group Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) claims that deforestation of primary rainforest at the heart of the country spiralled since the military took over. The military junta could have taken advantage of the situation by illegally selling wood to neighbouring countriesCEOBS researchers also make a more direct connection between pre-coup deforestation and the Rohingya genocide.

Satellite data shows large patches of rainforest removed between April and January, this year. Commentators on Twitter said that logging took place in the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park with a unique biodiversity and ecosystem.

While we can visually observe and confirm that kilometre-long stretches of rainforest have vanished in recent months, it remains hard to prove a direct link to the military rulers from satellite images alone. 

Eoghan Darbyshire, a researcher at CEOBS, the British NGO based in West Yorkshire, says that now the driver is to make money. “For the military government, that’s now more easily possible because of the coup”.

The army in Myanmar, alleged to be responsible for the genocide of the Rohingya people, is known ­to have sold deforested wood to generate additional cash. “It is quite an easy and quick way of getting money,” Darbyshire adds.

“In recent years [when Myanmar moved more towards democracy] deforestation had started to come under control as the civilian government enacted reforms. Now with the coup, that’s been all thrown out of the window and is now even more chaotic and incoherent,” he says.

Internationally, the environmental situation in Myanmar seems to be one of the most pressing plights right now. In the short term, it's the biggest environmental risks in conflict zones, Darbyshire confirms.

How long the deforestation will continue in this way is hard to say, he adds.

An investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of the state of Myanmar’s timber industry before and after the coup corroborates concerns. 

This week, the US government imposed tough timber sanctions against the Myanmar military government after the US Treasury said that the timber and pearl industries are “key economic resources for the Burmese military regime that is violently repressing pro-democracy protests in the country and that is responsible for the ongoing violent and lethal attacks against the people of Burma, including the killing of children”.

In February, shortly after the coup, experts said that sanctions could add to the risk of further deforestation and that foreign business partners abiding by rules could be replaced by others who may not. 

The UN’s FAO monitors the country and says it has the highest deforestation rates in the world. The driver so far has been agricultural expansion, power and infrastructure projects, mining and other logging. But now, the military junta may have made things much worse. In March, experts raised suspicions that the UN may have suspended climate projects that require working with Myanmar’s military government.

The armed forces, locally known as Tatmadaw, seized over 9,900 tonnes of illegal timber worth around £5.6m (11bn Myanmar Kyat) last year, mainly in the states of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan, local news sources reported. The EAI worries that the military may profit from the subsequent sales now and in this way continues to profit from seized timber.

Coastal Rakhine state 

2020, the first time deforestation rates increase after years of progress of decline. Forest cover and primary rainforest loss centred around the small town of Ann

Myanmar

Deforestation in the coastal state of Rakhine (black border) took place before the coup but now with less oversight and a money-making incentive for the military junta, risks for illegal and unsustainable deformation increases. In pink, areas of heavy forest loss, cumulated forest loss between 2018 and 2020 (source: Mapbox, Google Earth Engine, Carto, Planet  Labs)

Image credit: GFW

Myanmar

Evidence for deforestation since the coup in the areas around the township of Ann, comparing it before and after the coup (Image: Planet Labs)

Image credit: Planet labs, Ben Heubl

Kachin state

Although forest loss decreased in 2020, there are hotspots in this state. In the vicinity of the 300,000 inhabitant-strong city of Myitkyina, we observe large patches disappearing since January. 

Myanmar

Deforestation hotspot in the northern state of Kachin which shares a border with China to its north and east. China was identified as a potential wood and timber business partner. Experts worry it might ‘fill the void’ [replacing other international partners] and become a buyer and potential investors in commodities like palm oil and timber.

Image credit: GFW

Myanmar

Image credit: Planet labs, Ben Heubl

Other experts say that the recording of confiscated timber has been opaque. There is data by the Chinese media. China shares a 2,129 km long border with Myanmar. Seizures are taking place and teak logs are separated and stockpiled by the military. 

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