Cutting down Myanmar’s forests a hard knock life for Chinese

“Dangerous places hold a lot of opportunity, so everyone wants to get a piece of the action,” said Liu Wei (pseudonym) in an attempt to explain why he goes logging in northern Myanmar, in an interview with the Chinese-language Beijing News.

The local militia grant them permission but logging activities are forbidden by the central government, which means that loggers, while they can stand to profit immensely, often get caught up in the power struggle between the two.

The high demand for rosewood furniture in China has created a massive market for the wood. After the Ming and Qing dynasties there is little rosewood left in China to meet this demand, however, so it has to be met with imports. Most is sourced from Southeast Asian and African mahogany and palisander, with Myanmar being one of the main rosewood sources. Research from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO, suggests that in the last two years imports of rosewood from Myanmar have accelerated, particularly Dalbergia bariensis/oliveri (Burmese rosewood) and Pterocarpus macrocarpus (Burmese Padauk) and the organization added that “the huge scale of illegal and unsustainable logging poses a real threat to governance, the rule of law and the viability of dwindling forests.”

Permission from Local Militia

As of Jan. 29, Liu Wei had accumulated over 2,700 tonnes of rosewood in a courtyard in Nongdao township in Ruili, Yunnan province, which he had yet to sell. Liu says he was not in Myanmar when the government forces detained over 100 Chinese loggers at the beginning of January and feels like he dodged a bullet. Once things blow over he will return, he says, as he has been going there for 25 years. He first did business in the country back in 1990, signing an agreement with the former head of Special Region 1 in Kachin State and the former leader of the now defunct New Democratic Army-Kachin Za Khun Ting Ring (also spelt Zahkung Ting Ying), now an MP in the upper house.

Liu, originally from Chongqing, worked at a timber company there until 1989, often visiting Yunnan on business to buy timber. In 1989, Liu, then in his twenties, married his wife in Tengchong in Yunnan and moved to live there, “It was a place suited to border trade and Myanmar is so rich in resources.” He heard that people had made money by logging in Myanmar, so he arranged to go himself.

At that time Kachin State was reliant on China for daily necessities so Liu arranged to meet Za Khun Ting Ring through a local goods trader. Liu says that he signed an agreement with Ting Ring near the border between Myanmar and Yunnan in 1990. Under the terms of the agreement Ting Ring signed away the rights to harvest trees on two mountains in Kachin State for six months in exchange for 500,000 yuan (equivalent to around US$105,000 at the time). Liu said that Ting Ring even gave him a receipt and stamped the contract with the Special Region 1 seal.

Liu had only been harvesting timber from the region for just over two months when a business an from Tengchong sought him out, saying that Ting Ring had also sold him the logging rights for the trees on the two mountains. When they went to talk to Ting Ring, they were told that they should negotiate between themselves and that their money would not be refunded, so they divided the logging rights between them. At the time there were few Chinese loggers in Myanmar and most of them were known to Liu.

Timber entrepreneur Guo Wei, from Houqiao township in Tengchong county, went to Myanmar later than Liu. He says that due to Houqiao’s proximity to the Myanmar border, people from the township had been trading with people on the other side of the border for a long time. “For about 30 years, we give them daily necessities and help them build roads and schools and they let us log, sometimes we would negotiate with village-level officials, while at other times we would negotiate with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)”

From 1997 onward, there was an increase in the amount of people going to Myanmar to log. “I got a group of friends and family members to pool our resources and we bought logging rights from the trade department of the KIA, as it was more profitable than doing business in China,” Guo said. Observation of this spike in loggers in the late 1990s was echoed by many other timber business owners.

“The Myanmar government forces have little control here, as this land is controlled by Za Khun Ting Ring, so we do all our business through him,” said Liu Wei. Ting Ring left the KIA in 1969 and joined the ranks of the Myanmar Communist forces and in October of 1989 he reached a peace accord with the government of Myanmar, and the 101 military district which he led became the New Democratic Army-Kachin.

It was just around the time that Liu was signing his agreement with Ting Ring that the district administered by the New Democratic Army-Kachin was designated Special Region 1 of Kachin State, of which Ting Ring became chairman and commander. “He was the one you had to ask to get things done in the region.”

Four years later, in February 1994, the KIA signed a ceasefire with the Myanmar government and the area controlled by them became Special Region 2 of Kachin State.

Poor Working Conditions

When Liu first arrived in Myanmar to log the mountain was pristine forest and there were no roads, so they had to carry workmen with them to lay roads. This cost 6,000-10,000 yuan (US$960-$1,600 at current exchange rate) per km, so they would make calculations of where to lay road based on the profit that could be made; if they would stand to earn less than 1 million yuan (US$160,000) then they would not lay the road. Liu said that the trees they felled were gigantic, with most of them towering 60 meters or more and shorter trees measuring 20 meters. Some must have been growing for a thousand years, while the youngest among them were over one hundred years old.

When Liu first arrived in Myanmar to log the mountain was pristine forest and there were no roads, so they had to carry workmen with them to lay roads. This cost 6,000-10,000 yuan (US$960-$1,600 at current exchange rate) per km, so they would make calculations of where to lay road based on the profit that could be made; if they would stand to earn less than 1 million yuan (US$160,000) then they would not lay the road. Liu said that the trees they felled were gigantic, with most of them towering 60 meters or more and shorter trees measuring 20 meters. Some must have been growing for a thousand years, while the youngest among them were over one hundred years old.

Even now, working conditions for loggers are relatively poor. Wu Hui (pseudonym) from Jietou in Tengchong went to Kyauktaw mountain in Myanmar to join a logging team in November last year. He said that the team starts work at 8 am every morning until 6 pm every evening, with an hour for lunch, for the duration of which they have to wield the 40 mm or 90 mm chainsaw. The vibrations from the saw have a heavy toll on the body and after work the workers are exhausted. At night they stay in tents and the proliferation of leeches and mosquitoes make it difficult to sleep well.

Xiaoguo, who often drives timber from Myanmar across the border was held up at gun point last year. On Dec. 28, last year, Xiaoguo says that three empty trucks that were on their way to Myanmar to pick up timber were pulled over by three men, who had guns but didn’t have any uniforms. The men asked for money in stilted Chinese, demanding 500 yuan (US$80) per truck. Xiaoguo said that the three drivers bartered them down for 20 minutes, eventually compromising at 200 yuan (US$32) per truck.

Liu said that he often comes across this kind of situation, “They don’t let you go until you give them money. If you try and drive on they’ll shoot out your tires and they’ll beat you when you get out of your truck. In the end you’ll still have to give them the money.”

Protection Money

Although a ceasefire is in play in northern Myanmar, there is still a lack of governance in the country, which means that Liu often gets into trouble when logging. People are mainly motivated by money, he says.

Although a ceasefire is in play in northern Myanmar, there is still a lack of governance in the country, which means that Liu often gets into trouble when logging. People are mainly motivated by money, he says.

He says the Myanmar government sometimes approach him directly to ask for money. “If you don’t pay them off they’ll arrest you, so I give them hundreds of thousands at a time.” The Myanmar government has been arresting Chinese loggers since the 1990s; then the employer has to pay a “ransom” to allow them to be released, with the ransom for people generally charged at 500,000 yuan (US$80,000) per person and 1000 yuan (US$160) per truck. Everything can be bought back, said Liu.

Liu says he has also stumbled upon a battlefield before. In 1991 he was logging with a team of workers in Kachin State when they suddenly heard gunfire. An informant they had hired within the government forces came running to tell them that troops were only 5 km away and that they would soon arrive at the logging site. Everyone dropped their tools and ran deeper into the forest. “We had to run for our lives. If we’d been beaten to death, there would be no one who would ask after us.”

After battles over land between different groups, Liu often has to make another pay off if the land he was working on has changed hands. Government troops deployed to Kachin State normally go on two-month deployments. When the new commander arrives, he has to pay off the new arrival. In the 1990s, he could make profit of 20 yuan (US$3.20) on every unit of timber, but profit was pushed down by the extra costs to 5 yuan (US$0.80) a unit and sometimes even resulted in losses.

As demand increased for high-end furniture in China, costs of logging also increased. By the end of the 1990s, the price for the rights to log on an area of land that would have cost 500,000 yuan at the start of the 1990s had risen to 2-3 million yuan (US$320,000-$480,000) and now it has risen to around 5 million yuan (US$800,000).

Spike in Numbers Involved in Logging

Liu Wei said that rosewood prices can vary from 20,000-40,000 yuan (US$3,200-$6,400) per tonne, depending on quality and that costs come in at between 18,000-19,000 yuan (US$2,880-$3,050).

Liu is quite a small contractor in Ruili, with a team of 70 people, while bigger companies can employ almost 1000 people. Liu says that when business was good, there were 70,000-80,000 people logging in Myanmar.

Larger companies tend to sign contracts with local militia leaders in Myanmar and then divide the contract out amongst smaller companies. The rosewood is sold out of several lumberyards in the Nongdao township of Ruili, run jointly by several timber companies and these yards are mostly frequented by furniture manufacturers and construction companies; although sometimes investors come to buy up rosewood in anticipation of a rise in the price of the wood.

In previous years Liu Wei was able to sell over 4,000 tonnes of timber a year, but from May last year his stock has built up as rosewood is becoming harder to offload.

Other timber company owners in Nongdao also said that business had cooled from the middle of last year. A furniture manufacturer from Fujian who had come to buy timber said that there were several different places along the border that sell rosewood, most of it from Myanmar.

Workers Facing Lawsuits

Liu said that there has been more conflict than before in northern Myanmar, meaning that loggers have to hide and wait for a chance to sneak back over the border to China. When the fighting stops, the KIA will inform loggers that it is safe to come back and continue working, he added.

Liu still thinks of three workers who are still imprisoned at a jail in Mandalay with a tinge of regret. He says that the three workers went to Myanmar to collect timber for him at the end of October of last year but were arrested two months later with timber valued at over 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million).

One of Liu’s ethnic Chinese sources in Myanmar informed him that he would have to hand over 500,000 yuan to secure their release, “Later they said that it had gone up to 900,000 yuan (US$144,000), so I converted 900,000 yuan into 150 million kyat and handed it over, but they did not release them.” In the end the three were sentenced to seven years in prison due to violations of the country’s immigration and drug laws.

In an interview with the Beijing Times, a member of the KIA denied that logging was illegal. “Our Special Region has a high level of automony so all of the logging permits and entry permits are valid, we’ve been doing it like this for years.” He said that payments could be agreed for either a certain length of time or in terms of the amount of timber, but that the rates also depend on the type of wood and whether or not there are roads in the area.

He said that the trade of timber, jade and minerals is the biggest source of funds for local militia, with timber and jade along accounting for 30%. He said that the arrests of Chinese loggers were likely an attempt to put economic pressure on the KIA.

According to the vice minister of the Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, U Aye Myint, 38% of the timber that flows into China goes there through legal channels while the remaining 68% is smuggled through the border regions, adding that illegal logging by Chinese citizens in Myanmar will not only damage the Myanmar economy but also undermines the authority of the government, which is why the forestry bureau has brought charges against hundreds of Chinese loggers.

There are many Chinese loggers still trapped in Myanmar who are gradually making their way back home. The Chinese foreign ministry has said that the embassy in Myanmar has already sent a team to visit the Chinese nationals arrested and requested that the Myanmar government protect their safety and give them a fair trial.

The embassy has stated that 155 Chinese loggers arrested in Kachin are being held in a jail in the state capital Myitkyina and will soon face trial.

Source: Want China Times

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