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From deep jungles to desert: what happened to Myanmar's environment?

In 1948 Burma declared its Independence from the British Empire, and at the time over 70% of its territory was covered with forest. While the colonial period is when significant deforestation took place, the British had established strict rules and a Forest Department, in an effort to establish a sustainable system of logging.

Myanmar forest change from 1950 to 2016

After 1948, ethnic uprising, civil unrest and military dictatorship pushed aside conservation efforts. With the junta claiming control of forests, the importance of timber exports grew from 4% of total exports in 1950 to 42% in the late 80s.

After 1990, when a US embargo isolated the military regime, the rate of deforestation accelerated: from 2000 to 2010, 2% of the forest cover disappeared every year, the worst in all South East Asian countries.

Today, only 43% of Myanmar is classified as “forest”, but only 10% of this amount, or 4.3% of the territory, are real forest. The rest, a whole 90%, are “degraded forest”.

Traditional causes have played a role: the population growth, from 18 mn in 1950 to 55 mn today, took place mainly in rural areas, which led to an expansion of agriculture. Economic development also led to the conversion of forests into rice paddies, rubber plantations, teak plantations, or other exportable crops.

Illegal camp in Kachin

But in the case of Myanmar, illegal logging is the main culprit. Myanmar is the largest continental landmass in South East Asia, and it has neighbors with high demand for timber, China, India and Thailand, who have depleted their own forests long ago. For corruption, Myanmar ranks 171 out of 176 countries surveyed by the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. As a result, logs are commonly cut in Myanmar and then smuggled to processing facility in China or Thailand.

Only 8 years ago, immense “mountains” of freshly cut logs accumulated along the roads, awaiting transportation for export, were a common sight almost everywhere in Myanmar. It is no secret that immense fortunes have been generated for the benefit a few individuals, and to the detriment of the entire population.

Stockpile of timber in 2014

The central part of the country is now called “the Dry Zone”, and it concentrates a majority of the rural population on degraded soils, where life is suffocating most of the year. Few Burmese remember that it was one of the densest, most luxuriant tropical forest just 40 years ago. The mountains of Shan State are completely bald, but their forests were razed only 30 years ago.

All this has serious implication on biodiversity. Myanmar is known as the “last frontier” in Asia, due to its rich endowment and high diversity of flora and fauna. But out of 3,500 animal species recorded, over 250 are considered highly endangered by IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Is there any hope? Yes: at ACRE, we consider that our mission is to replenish Myanmar's natural forests. With the cooperation of Recoftc and The Nature Conservancy, our program program is designed to multiply the money invested through the harvest of pioneer species, and share the benefits with local communities.

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