The sweep led to the arrest of 155 Chinese nationals who
had been recruited from neighbouring Yunnan Province
to cross the border to cut trees and transport timber.
The case caused diplomatic tensions between Myanmar
and China when the Chinese labourers were given life
sentences in July. Just a few days later, all were freed
under a general presidential pardon.
The saga has shone a light on the murky and clandestine
trade in illicit timber occurring across the common border
between Myanmar and China. For at least two decades,
timber extracted from Myanmar’s precious frontier forests
in highly destructive logging operations has been flowing
into China unhindered. It is an illicit business worth hundreds
of millions of dollars a year, making it one of the single
largest bilateral flows of illegal timber in the world.
From the outside looking in, the cross-border trade
appears chaotic and complex. Most of the timber entering
Yunnan is either cut or transported through Kachin State,
a zone of conflict between ethnic political groups and the
Myanmar Government and its military. Here, all sides to
varying degrees profit from the logging and timber trade,
from the award of rights to Chinese businesses to log
whole mountains, often paid in gold bars, to levying fees
at multiple checkpoints to allow trucks carrying logs to
pass. While Kachin and Yunnan lie at the heart of trade,
it reaches far wider. Logs shipped across the border are
increasingly sourced from further inside Myanmar, such
as Sagaing Division, and end up supplying factories in
south and east China.
Yet field research conducted by the Environmental
Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals that beneath the
apparent chaos lies an intricate and structured supply
chain within which different players have a defined function
and collude to ensure the logs keep flowing. Key nodes in
the chain involve well-connected intermediaries who secure
logging rights for resale, cooperative groups of business
people who monopolise the trade at certain crossing points,
and logistics companies on the China side of the border
which effectively legalise the timber by clearing it through
customs and paying tax.
The peak year for the illicit trade was 2005, when one
million cubic metres (m3) of logs crossed the border.
A brief hiatus occurred for a few years afterwards when
Chinese authorities clamped down on the trade. But it
proved to be short-lived and the scale of the business is
once again approaching the peak levels. This trade is illegal
under Myanmar law, which mandates that all wood should
exit the country via Yangon port, and contravenes the
country’s log export ban. It also goes against the stated
policy of the Chinese Government to respect the forestry
laws of other countries and oppose illegal logging.
It is time for both countries to take urgent effective action
against the massive illicit timber trade across their joint
border. The 155 Chinese loggers have now returned home,
but without action to end the trade others will take their
place and further conflict, violence and forest destruction
Environmental Investigation Agency