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Chinese loggers stripping Myanmar's ancient forests

by Staff Writers
Nongdao, China (AFP) Oct 11, 2007
In eight weeks the quiet narrow road that hugs Nongdao's sugarcane fields on the way to the ancient jungles of Myanmar will be overrun with Chinese trucks loaded down with illegal timber.

The large wheezing diesels will dump their logs in this southwestern border sawmill town where it will be processed, then shipped to Chinese furniture makers on the seaboard before being exported for Western consumption.

"Come December and January this road will be so packed with trucks heavy with Myanmar timber that you can't pass for hours," said Xiao Zhengong, a 32-year-old resident of the area.

Nongdao, a town of just hundreds of people, is one small link in the global supply chain that makes up the multi-billion-dollar wood processing industry centred in China.

Each year caravans of Chinese trucks haul tens of thousands of tonnes of Myanmar's tropical trees to China, the world's largest importer of rare timber and a wood manufacturing centre.

"Six of ten timber logs chopped in the world's forest are destined for China," said Tamara Stark, a forestry expert for Greenpeace in China, a rapacious pace many fear will soon leave much of Southeast Asia treeless.

After 10 years of intense harvesting, Myanmar's forests have disappeared to such an extent that Chinese loggers from Yunnan province are now struggling to find accessible swathes of forest to cut.

"Only a few years ago loggers could travel a couple of days, now they have to travel a least a week into Myanmar to find the forests," said Yang Minggao, general manager of Rongmao Wood Trading Company in nearby Ruili.

The piles of illegally hewed trees, many also from Papau New Guinea and Indonesia, arrive at one of China's 200,000 mills, before being destined for the showrooms of major US and EU retailers as floorboards or furniture.

According to official Chinese statistics, the total value of China's forest exports were worth 17.2 billion dollars in 2005, up six times from 1997, making it a hugely profitable business.

Global demand has pushed China's total imports of timber logs up nine-fold over the last decade to be worth 5.6 billion dollars last year, according to Chinese customs data that does not include the illicit trade.

The insatiable appetite means many of Asia's ancient forests face imminent extinction, and, with it, the demise of hundreds of forest-dependent plant and animal species, environmental groups say.

"It is estimated that at present cutting rates the natural forests in Papua New Guinea will be logged out in 13-16 years," Washington-based environmental group Forest Trends warned in a report published last year.

"The equivalent figure for Indonesia is 10 years. The situation is Myanmar is no better, and maybe even worse."

China has taken steps to protect its own forests, but in turn that has forced suppliers to tap the resources of nations like Myanmar, where a corrupt military government is directly involved in the trade.

Amid pressure from environmental groups, China has taken measures to ban timber imports from northern Myanmar, a move which according to Yunnan government figures saw import volumes drop 75 percent in the first six months from the same period last year.

"The government has really cracked down and many have been scared off," said Yang Mingque, a local farmer at Chinese sawmill hub Yingjiang, about 150 kilometres (95 miles) northwest of Nongdao.

"But it's part of many people's livelihoods here and many are still willing to do it," said Yang.

The timber trade is mired in a web of official corruption on both sides of the border, locals said.

The issue is made even more complex in northern Myanmar's Kachin state, where the Kachin Independent Organisation and a coalition of guerrillas rule the territory with de facto independence.

On the Chinese side, police give out special logging permits to private local companies, a system that fosters kickbacks and a black market, farmer Yang said.

Inside Myanmar, Chinese loggers bring piles of cash to bribe the Southeast Asian nation's unpredictable militias and corrupt government officials.

For Chinese loggers the dangers in Myanmar include being shot at, deadly accidents and disease, but the chance to earn 10,000 yuan (1,300 dollars) for a 15-day journey is too tempting for many, Yang said.

"The trucks are already on the border waiting, and soon as the roads are dry they will go in. In the winter you will see them go past here by the hundreds."

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Greenpeace aims to expose Indonesian forest destruction
Jakarta (AFP) Oct 9, 2007
Environmental activists Greenpeace said Tuesday they have sent dozens of activists to Sumatra to collect evidence of the continued destruction of Indonesia's fast-dwindling forests.

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