When the military junta took forcible control of Myanmar in February, many environmental commentators voiced grave concerns about the potential recommencement of mass deforestation and removal of teak wood from the country.
Several months later it would appear that many of these concerns have been realised. Large swathes of timber have been removed from Myanmar’s rainforests, as revealed by satellite imagery provided by Planet Laps and Google Earth.
In the past month, many kilometres of rainforest have been removed from Rakhine state and within the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, potentially causing massive disruption to the delicate and previously protected ecosystem that thrived in the area.
The motivations behind this deforestation are clear. Trade sanctions and a looming economic crisis is forcing the junta to find new sources of short term revenue. The scramble to pull funds out of Myanmar has resulted in plummeting levels of business confidence and retraction of World Bank disbursements operations.
Large foreign investment firms, previously considered cornerstones of Myanmar’s economy, are already preparing to cease operations within the country. Norway’s telecoms group Telenor, responsible for a $782m investment into Myanmar, is preparing to withdraw its entire pledge, citing unacceptable staff working conditions, although the firm insists it will remain in the country.
Teak wood is an extremely valuable species of timber used to create luxury yachts and other expensive furnishings. In order to regain some level of economic stability, the junta is likely primed to make use of the little teak wood that remains in the country’s rainforests.
In the hands of previous junta regimes, the teakwood forests of Myanmar have been severely depleted. Consequently, the sale of Burmese teak is already prohibited by many countries in Europe and North America. This will likely lead the military administration to turn the sale of forested timber towards less environmentally conscientious Chinese and Vietnamese logging firms.
However, as revealed in a previous article teak wood from Myanmar is still finding its way to the European market; making use of illegal timber distributors in Croatia to service the massive demand for the unique wood.
It remains difficult to link the recommencement of deforestation in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park and the military junta. However, it is clear that the national upheaval and breakdown of governance that has followed the violent takeover of Myanmar has contributed to the advancement of illegal forestry operations.
It can be expected that the longer Myanmar’s political situations remains in turmoil, the greater the damage inflicted on its delicate forest resource. International economic sanctions in response to reported human rights violations, although necessary, are doing little but accelerate this damage.