Myanmar: Controlling chainsaws may be the key in winning the war on illegal logging

In Mahu, a villager cuts down a tree using a midsize chainsaw. Photo credit: Ann Wang/Mongabay.com

In Myanmar, Pyar Aung can still recall the very first time he laid eyes on a chainsaw. German-made, it was used by one of the logging companies in the woodlands surrounding the tiny, isolated village of Mahu in northwest Sagaing in 2013.

“It was so powerful and fast!” He exclaimed. He purchased one for himself in August 2016, and now owns three. Despite the laws and regulations in Myanmar, he said neither he nor any of his fellow villagers had ever been asked to produce any paperwork to get the chainsaws.

It is a startling discovery, considering the fact that logging in his community is nothing short of a cottage industry – there, 70 chainsaws are owned among 37 households. The villagers also said they did not know of the rather new regulation put into action and enforced in 2016, requiring all who purchase chainsaws to register them with Myanmar’s Forestry Department.

But it is remote, isolated communities like Mahu that are at the very heart of a government campaign striving to contain the rampant illegal chainsaw use and logging, embodying the hardships the government faces in educating the rural populations on chainsaw ownership and use.

The hamlet is an outlying island of homes hidden away deep inside Patolon Forest Reserve, a part of Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park – Myanmar’s largest national park at 1,605sqkm – and an ASEAN Heritage Park.

In spite of little to no knowledge of safety equipment, protocols, and training, chainsaws are quickly gaining popularity as the logging tool of choice in Myanmar’s forests. Presently, the nation is the largest supplier of natural teak around the globe.

Forestry officials say they can see an upward swing in numbers of imported chainsaws between 2013 and 2014. But because the exact numbers are incredibly troublesome to track and verify, they may be in the hundreds to thousands a year.

Which, in turn, is not good news for Myanmar’s forests; a chainsaw is capable of cutting down a tree four times fasters than the conventional axe or handsaw.

The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), keeps track of forest cover around the world, and has noticed that between 1990 and 2015, Myanmar has lost almost 15 million hectares of forest and other woodland.

However, there is nothing official yet concerning whether the national logging ban implemented between mid 2016 to April 2017 had any impact, positive or otherwise, on the forest loss.

The location of villages like Mahu – secluded with limited income options – is one of the factors that lend to illegal logging. For four months out of the year during the rainy season, the hamlet is completely severed from the outside world; the national education system only reached the community half a decade ago, and villagers still do not have access to phone signal or electricity. Thus, residents are driven by basic economics to purchase chainsaws for logging to facilitate their work.

But there is also high demand.

Around the same time the government put regulations for buying and owning a chainsaw into place, brokers from surrounding villages made their way to Mahu, seeking wood for sale.

Aung stated that he is able to make around US$95 per ton of logs, and he usually gathers around one and a half to two tons of wood a week to sell. If the village also logs at an identical pace, then they can log around 46 tons of wood per week, and 184 a month.

If they also sell their logs at the rate Aung does, the village can make around US$17,500 per month, and an estimated US$140,000 per year – excluding the rainy season.

For generations, the residents of Mahu have scratched a living on meagre profits from growing rice and selling handmade bamboo mats. Logging is an opportunity to branch out into other activities while also augmenting income.

“If we only grow rice, it’s not enough to make a living and that’s why we started cutting trees, but we mostly only log teak,” Aung explained. “The demand [for wood] is so high.”

Teak is also one of the most valued tropical hardwoods in the world.

 

Sources: Eco-Business, Ann Wang, Genevieve Belmaker