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Jun 13, 2017 - A new elephant poaching “crisis” is emerging in Myanmar, WWF announced yesterday .... ground/), in 2015 alone two people in Myanmar were.
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Myanmar’s ‘green princess’ is a humble activist on a mission ( BY JENNIFER RIGBY (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/JENNIFER-RIGBY/) 11 JANUARY 2017

Devi Thant Cin lives on one of the most prestigious roads in Myanmar, just a few feet from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and next to the tomb of the country’s…

The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey: discovered and immediately endangered ( BY SEAN MOWBRAY (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/SEANMOWBRAY/) 4 OCTOBER 2016

Though discovered by scientists in 2010, researchers have yet to get a clear image of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey due to its inaccessible high mountain habitat. Photo courtesy of FFI,…

Illegal Myanmar teak importation widespread to EU, investigation finds ( BY JOHN C. CANNON (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/JOHN-CCANNON/) 19 OCTOBER 2016

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released allegations Tuesday about what it says is the illegal importation of Burmese teak from Myanmar to the EU. In a two-month undercover investigation, staff…

Deforestation puts lives on the line in rural Myanmar (


On a still, heavy afternoon in September, with monsoon clouds massing lazily in the sky, the threat of the elephants seems far away. But U Sein Than, a 50year-old rice…

Sweden sets legal precedent with prosecution of Myanmar teak trader ( BY MIKE GAWORECKI (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/MIKEGAWORECKI/) 15 NOVEMBER 2016

A Swedish court upheld a ruling today that finds an importer of teak from Myanmar to be in violation of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) — setting a legal precedent…

‘The ones we named are all dead now’: dolphins and fishers struggle to survive in Myanmar ( BY KAYLA WALSH (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/KAYLA-WALSH/) 13 JUNE 2017

Fishermen in the Irrawaddy River have been fishing cooperatively with dolphins for generations. Photo: Alex Diment. Drifting down the moonlit Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in Myanmar, gangs of fishermen drop car…

Fire on the Salween: Dams in conflict zones could threaten Myanmar’s fragile peace process ( BY DEMELZA STOKES (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/DEMELZASTOKES/) 1 DECEMBER 2016

Leh Paw, an ethnic Karen woman taking refuge in Htee Htay Khee village speaks with Mongabay in November. Photo by Demelza Stokes. “I just get poorer and poorer,” Leh Paw,…

Demand for elephant skin driving up poaching in Myanmar (warning: graphic images) ( BY SHREYA DASGUPTA (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/SHREYADASGUPTA/) 6 JUNE 2017

A new elephant poaching “crisis” is emerging in Myanmar, WWF announced yesterday. In addition to targeting wild elephants for their tusks, poachers are now killing elephants for their skin. The…

‘An optimistic place to start’: Myanmar enacts national logging ban ( BY MORGAN ERICKSON-DAVIS (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/MORGAN-ERICKSON-DAVIS/) 3 AUGUST 2016

Rumors that have been building for months have come to fruition, with Myanmar announcing a national logging ban effective immediately. Although temporary, conservationists are lauding the ban, which will run…

Denmark prohibits companies from selling Myanmar teak on European Union markets ( BY MIKE GAWORECKI (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/MIKEGAWORECKI/) 20 MARCH 2017

Denmark last week placed an injunction on all Danish companies that prohibits them from selling teak imported from Myanmar on European markets. The ruling comes after evidence that Danish timber…

‘We are revolutionaries’: Villagers fight to protect Myanmar’s forests ( BY KATIE ARNOLD (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/KATIE-ARNOLD/) 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

U Ye Aung spent most of his adult life in a war zone. For over 60 years his village of Kalaikyi served as the frontline in one of Myanmar’s longest…

A fight to control chainsaws in Myanmar could turn the tide on illegal logging ( BY ANN WANG (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/ANN-WANG/), GENEVIEVE BELMAKER (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/GENEVIEVEBELMAKER/) 4 MAY 2017

ALAUNGDAW KATHAPA NATIONAL PARK, Myanmar – Pyar Aung still remembers the first time he saw a chainsaw. It was a German-made number being used by one of the logging companies operating…

No logging ban for Myanmar despite reported announcement ( BY MORGAN ERICKSON-DAVIS (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/MORGAN-ERICKSON-DAVIS/) 9 MAY 2016

Late last month, news reports heralded a new move by the Myanmar government that would ban the logging of all hardwood in the country. However, it now appears that the…

Myanmar’s forests face myriad problems as logging ban continues ( BY JENNIFER RIGBY (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/JENNIFER-RIGBY/) 29 SEPTEMBER 2016

YANGON – Myanmar’s forests are rich. They are rich in variety, in natural resources, and in wildlife. But they are also rich in danger. “Myanmar’s forests are more in crisis…

Illegal logging ‘ravaging’ Myanmar’s Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Reserve ( BY BRENT CRANE (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/BRENT-CRANE/) 16 NOVEMBER 2016

KACHIN STATE, Myanmar – At Indawgyi Lake in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, morning shorebirds flutter lazily above the water hyacinths, fishermen take long siestas after noon and, at night, fireflies float about in…

Attacks on journalists in Myanmar highlight complications, dangers for the media ( BY MONGABAY.COM (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/ONGABAY-COM/) 15 DECEMBER 2016

The murder of a Burmese reporter investigating illegal logging and the roadside beating of another, both in Myanmar earlier this week, have raised new fears about media safety in the…

New drone analysis highlights conservation challenges in Myanmar ( BY ANN WANG (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/ANN-WANG/) 30 NOVEMBER 2016

YANGON, Myanmar – Conservation work in Myanmar has been met with various challenges such as limited funding, an unstable political situation and poor management plans for forest reserves. Now, a…

Stone, Sand, Water: the key ingredients changing the Salween landscape ( BY DEMELZA STOKES (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/DEMELZASTOKES/) 21 DECEMBER 2016

Tun Lin, the 36-year-old security guard who mans the door to the Linno cave – home to four species of bat. Photo by Demelza Stokes. Tun Lin has a unique…

Journalist murdered while investigating illegal logging in Myanmar (


A journalist was murdered while investigating illegal logging and timber smuggling in Myanmar, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). On Tuesday, Soe Moe Tun, a local reporter with Daily…

Myanmar struggles to fight the crimes of illegal logging ( BY ANN WANG (HTTPS://NEWS.MONGABAY.COM/BY/ANN-WANG/) 1 NOVEMBER 2017

YANGON, Myanmar – It has been a good year for U Tint Khaing, the assistant director of the Forest Department overseeing action in Yangon. His team seized an estimated 1,500…

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Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Myanmar’s ‘green princess’ is a humble activist on a mission Commentary by Jennifer Rigby on 11 January 2017

Thant Cin, the greatgranddaughter of Burma’s last royal family, King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat, is considered one of Myanmar’s first environmentalists and works to fight deforestation and environmental degradation in the Southeast Asian nation.

She is the founder of the environmental activist organizations Global Green Group (3G) and the Myanmar Green Network. Despite having lived the life of a commoner, Thant Cin still considers it her royal duty to look after the interests of the Burmese people by fighting to protect the environment.

Devi Thant Cin lives on one of the most prestigious roads in Myanmar, just a few feet from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and next to the tomb of the country’s last queen, but her humble home is more difficult to find than you would expect. As well as being an environmental activist – possibly Myanmar’s first, and certainly one of its most prominent – Thant Cin is also a princess. She is the great-granddaughter of Burma’s last royal family, King Thibaw and Queen Supalayat. They were deposed and exiled by the British colonialists in 1885, just over 130 years ago.

She lives not in a palace but in a modest two-story, half wooden, half concrete house in Yangon. But Thant Cin finds it funny that people are surprised by this. “I have lived here for 50 years,” she said simply. “It was given to my grandfather for religious purposes, to look after the tomb [of Queen Supalayat].” She shares the house with two other royally descended families, and her attitude toward the house is indicative of her approach toward her glittering genealogy. For Thant Cin, royalty – even remembered royalty, like her own – is more about duty than palaces. “What I do is as important as who I am,” she said. By all measures, her chosen contributions have been significant. Thant Cin, 69, is a leading light in Myanmar’s fledgling green movement ( In a country where the focus is on

much-needed development of the economy rather than protecting its resources, the work of environmentalists like her is vital.

‘Green princess’

She’s been dubbed “Myanmar’s green princess” by filmmaker Alex Bescoby, who is making a documentary about her family called “Burma’s Lost Royals (” Thant Cin isn’t afraid to use her heritage to get her message across; at least once people have already started listening. “I don’t want people to come and look at me like in a zoo, to see the last descendants,” she said. “I want them to accept me and allow me to talk to them based on my work.” It’s an impressive body of work, built up in challenging circumstances, including the risks of being an activist of any kind during the dark decades of military rule in Myanmar (also

known as Burma). Things are improving now: the country began to emerge from its isolation in 2011, when the military handed over power to a military-backed civilian government. In November last year, in the first free elections for decades, the people voted in democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi.

Devi Than Cin in her home in Myanmar recently. Photo by Jennifer Rigby

But Thant Cin remembers the difficult years all too well. She lost her job because she took part in a protest. Her father was imprisoned for his activism. And there didn’t seem to be any focus on the environment. She dismisses questions about whether her work is dangerous, adamant that the far greater danger is what lies ahead if the world doesn’t wake up to environmental threats. But despite her bravado, it is still a risky area to work for environmentalists and journalists. According to the non-profit Global Witness ( ground/), in 2015 alone two people in Myanmar were killed defending the land or the environment. Though that pales in comparison to the 50 killed in Brazil in the same year or even the 12 deaths in neighboring Thailand, both environmental activism and journalism remain highly risky. In December, Burmese journalist Soe Moe Tun ( – who was reporting on illegal logging in the northwest of the country – was

found dead by the side of a highway in Monywa, Sagaing region. Police believe the Eleven Media Group reporter was beaten to death.

Sensitive topic

Passions run high when it comes to environmental issues in Myanmar: it’s a high-stakes, expensive game for the businesses who want to develop the country’s rich natural resources, and many of the sites being eyed for development are located in areas long plagued by ethnic conflict – areas where the authority of the central government does not always reach. Thant Cin is not frightened. “I have to be an activist because we are all living on this planet. We aren’t separate from the environment. If we cut down the trees, drain the oceans, the mountains, the air – it is all connected, because we are living on earth,” Thant Cin said. “In Myanmar we have flood disasters every year now – why? It’s

because we had 70 percent [forest coverage] many decades ago, and now it’s all industry. And so far, there are barely any rules and regulations for the environment.” According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (, Myanmar lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land between 1990 and 2015. Since 2010, it has lost half a million hectares of forest every year – an area about the size of Brunei. That means there are just 29 million hectares of forest in Myanmar today (, so just less than half of Myanmar is still covered in forest, according to the FAO. Much of it is at risk due to rampant illegal logging, despite a government-instituted logging ban.

A multi-faceted strategy

In the face of these challenges, Thant Cin’s strategy has been three-fold, and centered on raising awareness. In a country which only officially opened its Ministry of Environmental Conservation in 2011, it’s a good place to start. Her initial strategy in the early 2000s was to write about environmental issues, and in 2007 she launched her own – which was Myanmar’s first and, still only – Burmese-language environmental magazine, “Aung Pin Lae.” It was a struggle. She started with around $1,120 from one of her friends and there were many occasions when she battled to keep the publication afloat. Her royal background does not come with a royal allowance. But as interest in the environment increased, so did sales. Her secondary strategy was to help unify Burma’s burgeoning green movement. She gathered together the country’s handful of environmental activists in 2006 to

form the Global Green Group (3G), followed closely by the Myanmar Green Network. The group is made up of shifting numbers of mining engineers, meteorologists, lawyers, civil engineers, activists, researchers and journalists. “Our main aim is to be the check and balance between the government and civil society,” Thant Cin said. What this means in practice is standing up for the environment – and the people living within it – when either or both are threatened by rampant development. One of its roles is publishing informational pamphlets for people living near proposed developments. Often, these pamphlets are the first some local people have heard about construction plans. The group also carries out impact assessments and organizes protests. Most famously, this has meant standing up against the Myitsone dam, a controversial project

backed by China at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River in northern Kachin State that could cause widespread environmental devastation if it goes ahead. “For the whole of Myanmar, the Irrawaddy is like the mother river,” Thant Cin said. “If there is dam construction that they shouldn’t do, we point out that it’s not the time to do it.” In part thanks to Thant Cin and other protestors’ efforts, the project is currently on hold. A governmental decision is expected in the next few months, and if the project gets the goahead, Thant Cin and her colleagues will not take it lying down.

New focus

Thant Cin’s latest initiative is bamboo, which grows throughout Myanmar, with the Bamboo Lovers Network ( The

organization aims to teach people about the value of bamboo and the importance of protecting it. “Our people, they just cut it and use it, they do not re-plant. They think there is lots of forest, there’s no need to plant again. So we educate them and give knowledge on this,” Thant Cin said. According to one forestry expert, the network could have an economic benefit as well as environmental. Speaking to the Myanmar Times ( when the network was launched in 2014, San Win, pro-rector of the University of Forestry in Myanmar, said that although the country has the third-largest bamboo reserves globally – after India and China – its income from bamboo is minimal at around $2 million in 2010 compared to $1.74 billion for China. Thant Cin has quite the to-do list, and is busy: her phone rang almost non-stop during a recent interview with a Mongabay reporter. But she sees her voice

as vital in opening people’s eyes. In fact, she sees it as her duty as a princess. “We have had difficult times in my country, and my father always taught me that we have royal blood,” she said. “It is different from the civilians. We came from the ruling people, so you must always look after people. It is your duty to your country and your people. So I am standing on that still now.” Banner image: An image from Alex Bescoby’s documentary, “Burma’s Lost Royals.” Image courtesy of Alex Bescoby. Jennifer Rigby is a UK-based journalist with extensive experience as a foreign correspondent in Myanmar. She is a recipient of a prestigious 2016 International Women’s Media Foundation’s reporting grant to write a book about women breaking stereotypes in Myanmar. You can find her on Twitter at @jriggers (

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Global Forests, Myanmar Forest Trade

Myanmar struggles to ght the crimes of illegal logging by Ann Wang on 1 November 2017

Illegal logging uses the same mechanisms employed by organized crime, yet enforcement agents in Myanmar must use environmental protection laws to combat smuggling. During a series of seizures in January of this year, the forestry department seized hundreds of tons of illegally logged teak bound for China. One of the key witnesses to the case, who was released by police, later led forestry officials to a cache of 375 tons of illegal teak. One expert says that illegal logging should be processed through the criminal justice system, not by the forestry department.

YANGON, Myanmar – It has been a good year for U Tint Khaing, the assistant director of the Forest Department overseeing

action in Yangon. His team seized an estimated 1,500 tons of illegal timber this year alone. They claim that it’s the largest amount of timber the Forestry Department has ever seized from Yangon. Acting on a tip, Khaing and two of his staff arrived at Myanmar’s industrial port in January of this year with the mission to identify two suspect containers from among the 185 acres of grounds where up to 5,000 containers are processed daily. It is the largest port in Myanmar and the only legal way for processed timber to exit Myanmar. “The containers had seals from the customs department but did not have our forestry department’s seal on it,” Khaing said. The inspection unit at the Forestry Department monitors the loading of the containers before sealing and is only allowed to be sent to the port for export only with the approval signature from Forestry Department. But Khaing says that it was another case of just to do his job he has to first deal with great resistance from among his counterparts within the government system.They asked to look inside, which led to a standoff between forestry officials and the customs department under Ministry of Planning and Finance at the port. Only after numerous phone calls and negotiations were they able to do the inspection.

Timber is only allowed to be exported via ports and must be processed before export in Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

“It was a gamble for me too, what if it’s not timber inside the container?” Khaing said, who risked his career over the two containers. His insistence paid off – it was 33 tons of illegal teak in total. Building on the momentum, the next day they were able to seize another 11 containers, which totaled 163 tons of illegal teak. The managing director of Smart Export and Import Company and Myanmar Bean and Timber Trading were both arrested in connection to the seizure. Out of the 11 trucks ordered to transport the containers back to the forestry department one car license plate belonged to one of the original transporters before the seizure. Khaing saw the plates and realized it was the same driver that his team had handed over to the police, hoping they would further investigate. After brief questioning, the police released the driver without charging him.

“The driver came back to our compound to get his truck back and we didn’t let that second chance slip away,” Khaing said. Further questioning led them to a residence compound on the outskirts of Yangon which was likely a midpoint stop for smugglers when they enter Yangon from around the country. They seized another 375 tons of teak that day. “Frankly speaking, there is not much difficulty smuggling timber to MIP [Myanmar Industrial Port] before my seizures because this route is very short and safe for them,” Khaing said. Enforcement is a problem in part because of bureaucracy. “Essentially the main issue is that illegal logging is still regarded as an environmental issue in Myanmar, when it should be regarded as organized crime,” said Giovanni Broussard, the regional coordinator for combating wildlife and forest crime at UNODC.

A forestry department ground inspection team checks the timber to be exported and monitors container loading at the site before sealing the container. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

“It should be treated by the criminal justice system and the forestry department shouldn’t be the one responsible for the investigation, as they do not have the capability to build up the case and bring the criminal to the prosecutor,” Broussard said. He added that forestry department officers don’t even have access to bank or phone records. According to report ( by UNODC, 99 percent of those arrested for illegal logging are residen driver and not the people or the company who made the purchasing or “The money that is involved in the illegal logging trade more probably is not from within Myanmar, and the timber doesn’t stay in Myanmar, there has to be a connection abroad,” Broussard said. “But we don’t see the Myanmar authorities linking up with other counties and try to get information from other countries.”

Crime and punishment

Timber is only allowed to be exported via ports and must be processed before export in Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

The 1992 forestry law with regards to offenses and penalties poses other challenges when prosecuting crimes against illegal logging. The maximum for crimes related to logging is $23 and up to two years in prison. If it is teak, the fine would be a maximum of $57 or up to seven years imprisonment. There is now a draft for a new law and is currently under review in parliament, but new forestry law measures have failed to be approved in the previous years. With regards to corruption, UNODC has had discussions with related key players within the department, however anticorruption measurements remains a new topic within the sector. “Regular rotation of staff can reduce the risk of corruption, but not everyone rotates, people from that areas stay there, and corruption always find its way through,” Broussard said. He the supply chain should be reevaluated, the old role of Myanmar Timber Enterprise. Through this method the supply chain can be analyzed for areas of corruption risk, and to establish measures to reduce the chances of corruption.

Timber is only allowed to be exported via ports and must be processed before export in Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

“Asking mandatory income discloser from people working in the forest department sector, from all the people giving license and permission, we need to know how much these people makes every year as well as their family members, make it public, try to see if these guys become richer for doing their job because they may be receiving other payments,” Broussard said. He points out that these are basic anti-corruption measurements used in sectors at risk, but so far none is used in Myanmar. Back in Khaing’s office at the Forestry Department in Yangon, which is also where he lives for safety, he is still trying to find the best way to stop illegal logging in Myanmar. He also believes it is imperative to eliminate corruption. “If the government staff are honest, it will not be like this,” Khaing said. Banner image: A forestry department ground inspection team checks the timber to be

exported and monitors container loading at the site before sealing the container. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay. Ann Wang is a foreign correspondent and photojournalist based in Myanmar. You can find her on Instagram at AnnWang077 ( FEEDBACK: Use this form ( to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Denmark prohibits companies from selling Myanmar teak on European Union markets by Mike Gaworecki on 20 March 2017

The ruling comes after evidence that Danish timber company Keflico had violated the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) was brought to light by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based NGO. According to a statement issued by Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency, audits were

carried out at seven Danish companies that had imported teak from Myanmar in the last four years. The results of the audits showed that authorities in Myanmar had not provided adequate documentation of where the timber for any given purchase came from and whether or not it was legally harvested, thereby making it virtually impossible for Danish companies to avoid importing illegal wood.

Denmark last week placed an injunction on all Danish companies that prohibits them from selling teak imported from Myanmar on European markets. The ruling comes after evidence that Danish timber company Keflico had violated the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) was brought to light by the Environmental Investigation Agency ( (EIA), a London-based NGO.

According to a statement ( paa-toemmer-fra-myanmar/) issued by Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency, audits were carried ou at seven Danish companies that had imported teak from Myanmar in the last four years. Teak is a tropical hardwood especially prized for use in furniture and shipbuilding. The results of the audits showed that authorities in Myanmar had not provided adequate documentation of where the timber for any given purchase came from and whether or not it was legally harvested, thereby making it virtually impossible for Danish companies to avoid importing illegal wood. “None of the Danish timber importing companies, which the Environmental Protection Agency visited, could demonstrate that they adequately minimized the risk of importing illegally harvested timber,” the statement reads (translated from Danish). “The seven companies have now been ordered to follow timber regulation rules.” The move by Denmark follows the precedent set by the successful prosecution in Sweden last November of the trader Almtra Nordic

( for violations of the EUTR. It was discovered that the company could not show who had harvested its timber or where it was cut prior to being purchased from the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, the state-operated company that is responsible for the harvest and export of timber in Myanmar. Almtra Nordic received a fine and an injunction that prevents it from importing teak from Myanmar until the company can identify and mitigate the risk of the timber it’s purchasing having been harvested illegally. According to EIA Forests Campaigner Peter Cooper, the Danish ruling sets another precedent that other EUTR Competent Authorities must follow. “Denmark’s leadership in EUTR enforcement underpins similar rulings already made in Sweden and leaves no doubt that anyone placing Burmese teak on the EU market under current conditions is in breach of European law,” Cooper said in a statement welcoming the decision by Danish authorities. “With Denmark setting a clear precedent on a

case submitted by EIA, we now expect authorities in Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and the UK to rapidly resolve the remaining 12 cases submitted by EIA.” The allegations made by the EIA against numerous other European companies focus on the due diligence requirements of the EUTR (, which hold importers responsible for adequately assessing and addressing the risk of illegally produced timber entering their supply chains. EIA says it has submitted cases regarding teak imported from Myanmar by Antonini Legnami, Basso Legnami, and Bellotti Spa in Italy; Boogaerdt Wood, Gold Teak Holdings, and World Wood in the Netherlands; Crown Teak and Vandercasteele Hout Import in Belgium; Teak Solutions in Germany (a case that has since been transferred to Spain); and Moody Decking, Stones Marine Timber, and DA Watts and Sons (Wattsons) in the UK. In October 2016, when EIA’s allegations against the companies were made public, many of them repudiated EIA’s findings in statements to Mongabay

( For instance, Peter Tsounis, the CEO of Crown-Teak, told Mongabay in an email that, “Our duediligence procedures are quite strenuous and our abiding with the EUTR…is strict. There has not been one single container of teak…that has not been controlled by us and been properly and legally documented.” If a private business were to go around the Myanmar government and perform its own investigations in the field, Tsounis added, it would be “unlawful” and dangerous. But EIA’s Cooper argues that, due to the high risk of illegality and lack of transparency in the operations of the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, it is probably not possible for any company to apply due diligence to Myanmar’s teak. “The Myanmar Timber Enterprise needs to urgently address illegality within its operations and provide access to independent monitoring of its operations — or risk permanently losing access to Europe’s lucrative teak market,” he added.

Logging trucks in northern Myanmar in April 2015. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency.

FEEDBACK: Use this form ( to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Mike Gaworecki

Mongabay Series: Global Forest Reporting Network, Global Forests

‘An optimistic place to start’: Myanmar enacts national logging ban by Morgan Erickson-Davis on 3 August 2016

Myanmar lost 5 percent of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014, with rates scaling upward over that time. The ban will stave off logging activity for one harvesting season, leaving the country to depend on its reserve timber stockpiles.

Logging activities have been banned in the Pegu Yoma region for 10 years. Legality concerns remain, with conservationists calling for strict controls over stockpiled timber to ensure illegal harvests aren’t laundered through the system.

Rumors that have been building for months have come to fruition, with Myanmar announcing a national logging ban effective immediately. Although temporary, conservationists are lauding the ban, which will run until the end of March 2017. Myanmar has seen an uptick in deforestation in recent years, with satellite data from the University of Maryland showing the country lost nearly 5 percent (2 million hectares) of its tree cover from 2001 through 2014. (Note: tree cover includes both forests and tree plantations.) Of this, 2014 saw more than a quarter-million hectares lost – more than any previous year during the study period.

According to environmental watchdogs, overexploitation of Myanmar’s forests have been driven by corruption and mismanagement in the country’s timber industry sector. They say the new ban is a big step in the right direction. “This is a decision that demonstrates clear intent to tackle corruption within the forestry sector by Myanmar’s National League for Democracyled Government, which only came to power in March,” said Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “Of course, there is no one-policy solution to the problem and much work remains to be done, but this is a hugely encouraging and an optimistic place to start.”

Myanmar lost more than 2 million hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2014. One of the states most affected by logging is Kachin, which lies along the country’s northeastern border with China. The state contains some of Myanmar’s most extensive intact forest landscapes – particularly large, continuous tracts of primary forest – home to endangered Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti).

With the main brunt of logging taking place in Myanmar from August through March, the ban effectively stops one season of harvest. However, with a current stockpile of around three years’ worth of timber, the country has enough reserve to satisfy demand. These stockpiles will be managed by the governmentcontrolled Myanmar Timber Enterprise.

However, the country’s timber industry has historically shown something of a disregard for legality concerns, with a 2014 EIA report ( finding 72 percent of log exports out of the country from 2000 to 2013 were illegally harvested. In a statement issued today, EIA stressed the importance of implementing controls that would ensure illegally harvested timber isn’t laundered through Myanmar’s stockpiles. Myanmar previously enacted a ban on raw timber exports in 2014 ( in effort to stem pressure on its forests. But the ban’s exclusion of milled timber raised eyebrows in the conservation community and led to a flurry of new lumber yards as those in the industry sought to take advantage of the loophole. A big driving force of Myanmar’s illegal timber trade is demand from China, with Myanmar becoming China’s biggest supplier of rosewood in 2013 (

in-timber-smuggling-gives-breathing-spaceto-myanmars-forests/). Such demand is implicated with the decline ( of rosewood species, with several considered endangered. The trade in illegally harvested timber across the Myanmar-China border declined in 2015 as China’s economy slowed and Myanmar’s government changed hands. Currently, China’s timber trade with Myanmar is officially suspended. “Taken together with the fall in the official cross-border timber trade,” Doherty said, “the new logging ban proposed by the Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, U Ohn Win, gives grounds for hope that Myanmar is entering a new era of forest management in which conservation and transparency, rather than the old model of extract and export, are at the fore.”

Header image is of an Indochinese tiger taken by Lotse and used via Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0).

Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis

A construction boom in Myanmar is fueling a demand for raw materials like limestone and sand. Extracting these resources threatens ecosystems and communities along the Salween River. This push for economic and industrial development is also driving plans to build megadams on the Salween River. Activists call for an alternative vision for development, based on sustainable technologies and small-scale, decentralized projects.

Tun Lin, the 36-year-old security guard who mans the door to the Linno cave – home to four species of bat. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Tun Lin has a unique occupation: he is the security guard at Linno limestone karst cave on the bank of the Salween River in Myanmar’s southeast Karen (Kayin) State. He earns 80,000 Myanmar kyat (around $60) per month to guard the entrance to the cave, the contents of which

— common nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea), wrinklelipped bats (Chaerephon plicatus), Theobold’s tomb bats (Taphozous theobaldi), black-bearded tomb bats (Taphozous melanopogon) and a lot of guano — are targeted by robbers who either poach the bats or steal the guano that is sold in the local area for use as fertilizer. Only five months on the job, the 36-year-old has not yet encountered any thieves, but the last time hunters came, they used nets to scoop up over a thousand of the cave-dwelling bats. Captured live and kept in bags, the bats were sold on as food or as traditional medicine, explained Myint Myint Nwe, the cave’s license holder and customary “owner.” But it’s not just the cave bat colonies that are at risk here in Karen State. In fact, the entire limestone karst landscape, and its natural formations and caves are increasingly at risk from Myanmar’s (and Southeast Asia’s) booming construction industry, the bedrock of surging industrial development.

This is the final article in a five-part series exploring Myanmar’s Salween landscape amid galvanizing plans to develop hydropower projects along its course. Part I ( outlines plans being made by businesses and governments in China, Thailand and Myanmar to harness the Salween’s vast hydroelectric potential. Part II

( looks at the Salween dams’ already bloody legacy and the projects’ direct or indirect relationship with perpetuating instability and conflict in Myanmar’s Shan and Karen states. Part III ( uncovers some of the ethnic and ecological biodiversity at stake, focusing on the Kun Heng “thousand islands,” a unique riverine ecology facing submersion under the Mong Ton dam reservoir in Shan State. Part IV ( introduces the “Salween Peace Park,” combining wildlife conservation and peace-building in Karen State, where the world’s longest running civil war has raged since 1949. Much of this quarried limestone makes its way to Karen State’s cement industry, which is growing in tandem with burgeoning development in the Salween Basin and throughout Myanmar. Ten years ago, a study in the journal BioScience estimated that companies across Southeast Asia quarry 178 million metric tons of limestone every year — and that limestone extraction was “the primary threat to the survival of karst-associated species, and … will certainly exacerbate the biodiversity crisis in Southeast Asia.” The entire region’s limestone mountains, cliffs and caves — and their residents — are all at risk from quarrying, and Myanmar is no exception. Human Rights Watch reported this year ( that four

large-scale mining licenses for limestone extraction and at least ten exploration permits have been granted in Karen State. The tropical caves that pockmark the sharp rising cliffs are very fragile environments, their unique ecosystems formed by particular combinations of light, moisture and soil. Referred to as “arks of biodiversity,” ( these caves contain high levels of endemism. Four years ago, a local construction company began blasting rock from the limestone outcrop that surrounds the Linno cave. The impact on the cave’s residents was immediately felt by Myint Myint Nwe, who has held the license to harvest the bats’ guano for twelve years. Once mining began on the western side of the outcrop, the loud disturbance from blasting caused the bats (which number roughly 404,000) to abandon their roosts. She sent a letter to the village chief who then sent the request to the government to stop the mining, “The bats are my livelihood … so I am happy they closed the mine, but they moved to another mountain I think,” she told Mongabay.

Limestone at a government mining facility in Myaing Galay, near Hpa-An town, Karen State. According to a 2006 study in the journal Bioscience, less than 1 percent of Myanmar’s limestone karsts are protected. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

In addition to producing natural fertilizer, cave-dwelling bats provide other vital ecosystem services such as insect control, seed dispersal and pollination. A 2011 study on the economic importance of bats to agriculture in North America suggested ecosystem services from bats added up to billions of dollars per year (

nose_syndrome/pdfs/Boyles2011EconomicsofBats.pdf). Southeast Asia is home to over 340 bat species, and Myanmar houses almost a third of those, including the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), the world’s smallest mammal ( (weighing only two grams). At least 40 percent of the region’s bats use caves as roosting sites, primarily due to their large size and stable microclimates, the Southeast Asian Bat Conservation Research Unit has reported ( Myanmar’s complex limestone cave systems allow for great diversity of often sharing roosting sites. A 2009 study ( suggested isolated karst outcrops can serve as important population re slowing down the decline of bat diversity in fragmented forests. Cave-d traditionally been protected by Myanmar’s local communities and Budd Karen State’s limestone caves due to mining or other disturbances cou declining bat populations in surrounding connected areas. The mining of Linno cave to provide raw materials for road constructio Myanmar feeds into the broader transformation of Southeast Asia’s lan increasing fragmentation of wildlife habitats. WWF reported ( this year that Asia’s infrastructure development boom will lead to the c new kilometers of transport projects, increasing the vulnerability of tig animals due to “unmitigated fragmentation and destruction of their hab around the Salween dam sites and their associated road construction p effect of large hydropower projects as their development reverberates ecosystems (see Part 3 ( [quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]It starts with sand [/quote_colored] Another key ingredient in the cement industry feeding Asia’s industrial development is sand. Aung La Teh, ex-headman of Kaw Ku village keeps an eye out for illegal dredging boats puttering around Kaw Ku Island. He and the other villagers who farm the sediment-rich island in the middle of the Salween are concerned because sand mining — on the

island itself, or upstream — causes erosion of the island. “The Border Guard Force and business cronies, they came and took sand from the island,” U Saw Thein Mein Go, Kaw Ku village’s chief told Mongabay. “Last year they destroyed one part of the island. Since myself and another chief went to stop them, we told parliament and we asked them put a stop to it.” The villages that share the use of Kaw Ku Island have an agreement to take sand from the island or the riverbed for their own use, not for sale, but the increasing commercial demand for sand has seen the Salween riverbed become increasingly coveted. Sand mining isn’t the only thing threatening the existence of Kaw Ku Island. If plans to build five large dams on the Salween go ahead, the levels of sediment that drift downstream and build up on the island will be depleted. Most years, the natural hydrological cycle of the river sends seasonal floods in August (at the peak of the monsoon) that cover the entire island. “The levels depend on the rains. When the water floods the villagers are really happy because they get more sediment for their agriculture,” Aung La Teh told Mongabay. Aung La Teh is from one of the two villages that have over the past thirty years shared the use of Kaw Ku Island to grow vegetables. He told Mongabay that his profit from the sale of

vegetables depends directly on the quality of the sediment on the island.

Farmers like ex-headman Aung La Teh depend on sediments from the Salween River to fertilize their crops on Kaw Ku Island. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Aung La Teh and other villagers who cross the Salween each year to farm on Kaw Ku believe that the Hat Gyi dam (and the other four dams) will seriously affect their agricultural production and livelihoods. Aside from depleting the sediment levels on which they depend, plans for the Hat Gyi hydropower dam include a water-diversion project that will siphon water from Hat Gyi’s reservoir across the border to store in the Bhumipol dam ( newsid=1472365092) in Thailand’s Tak province. Thailand will reportedly use the water to cope with recurring severe drought problems (, but critics of Hat Gyi worry excessive water capture and diversion will severely affect the rural communities downstream in Myanmar who depend on agriculture to survive. The Hat Gyi dam site is located in Karen State’s Hlaingbwe township, about fifty kilometers from the Thai border and 100 kilometers from the mouth of the river in Mon State, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. The 1,360 MW project ( will be developed by EGAT International Co. Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Thailand’s state-

owned Electricity Generating Authority), Myanmar’s energy ministry (MOEP), Myanmar’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Co. (IGE), and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro. If it goes ahead, the Hat Gyi dam will be the first Salween dam to be constructed. According to International Rivers, a second environmental impact assessment has been completed for Hat Gyi, but the full version of the report has not been made available to the public. Lack of transparency around the Salween dams’ impact assessments troubles observers. The best hope for mitigating the ecological and social effects of a project is through comprehensive studies of the dams’ potential social and environmental impacts conducted prior to construction, when it is still possible to influence the decision-making process. “It is urgent that the future of the Thanlwin (Salween) River is responsibly planned and equitably managed to protect the environment and the inhabitants of the watershed.” Maung Maung Aye, Chief Advisor at the Myanmar Environment Institute, told Mongabay. While it can’t save ecosystems, providing compensation for loss of lands or moving people to relocation villages can offer a solution for dam-affected communities. However, even in peaceful conditions these processes repeatedly fall woefully short of their objectives ( (see Part 3) — let alone in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden borderlands, where people may have already been relocated multiple times due to conflict. River-dependent communities like Aung La Teh’s, who have for generations depended on the river’s natural monsoonal fluctuations to farm, are in the dark about how the dam and its proposed water diversion project will affect their livelihoods. Six villages depend on the nearby

Dawla Lake, which is connected to the Salween near Kaw Ku Island. The lake fills up during the monsoon and fish from the Salween migrate and breed in the lake, and during the dry season, villagers graze their cattle on the land. The villagers who depend on Dawla Lake’s flooding for their fishing and farming needs will be forced to seek out their livelihoods elsewhere if the lake dries up. Scientists have warned that dams on the Mekong could disrupt fisheries and seasonal floods, creating an “ecological time-bomb” ( that threatens “the food security of millions” — an ominous portent for downstream Salween farmers. [quote_colored name=”” icon_quote=”no”]“We cannot accept that by going against the Hat Gyi dam, we cannot get electricity.”[/quote_colored] Myanmar does need to increase access to electricity to fuel its growth and development. Severely lagging behind its neighbors, it has one of the lowest electricity consumption rates in Asia. However, the construction agreements for the Salween dams, signed while Myanmar was still under military rule, grant most of the electricity to China and Thailand, leaving Myanmar’s rural communities to deal with the environmental and social consequences. People living near Kaw Ku Island want more electricity, but many are

adamantly against the construction of large dams on the Salween River. “We cannot accept that by going against the Hat Gyi dam, we cannot get electricity,” a man from Mi Kayin village explained to a researcher working amongst downstream communities earlier this year.

Sand mining upstream has caused erosion on Kaw Ku Island. Villagers are also worried that the Hat Gyi dam will decrease the amount of silt and sediment deposited by the river, lowering soil fertility and reducing their agricultural yields. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

The villagers are worried that the Hat Gyi dam (and the four other huge Salween dams) will seriously affect their agricultural production and livelihoods. Last week, at a Green Energy Forum in Yangon, 422 civil society groups published a statement calling for more sustainable energy solutions to meet the country’s energy needs. “Myanmar is in a unique position to leapfrog fossil fuels and mega dams to focus on renewable energy, especially communityowned off-grid solutions, which can be much cheaper than expanding the central grid,” it said. Approximately 70 percent of

Myanmar’s citizens live in areas not connected to the national grid, and critics of coal and big hydropower projects are calling for small scale and decentralized energy sources as a more efficient solution to filling Myanmar’s energy gap. “While providing electricity for consumers and industry is a clear priority, the long construction time rules out large dams for solving the immediate crisis,” Jeff Rutherford, a consultant who has studied the Salween basin for over a decade, told Mongabay. The statement released during the Green Energy Forum called on the National League for Democracy (NLD) to honor promises made during the 2015 elections, which delivered the party a majority in the new, civilian-led government. In its 2015 campaign manifesto (, the NLD warned “the construction of the large dams required for the production of hydropower causes major environmental harm” and committed to generating electricity from existing dams. In fact, the NLD have Myanmar’s democratic transition to thank for increased pressure from environmental civil society groups, who have up until very recently been muzzled by repressive orders such as the ban on public gatherings of more than five people that was instated in 1988. It was only lifted in January 2013. “We are engaging this freedom not long, it is very recent,” Pyi Pyi Thant, a researcher at the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network told Mongabay. “The political process domestically has allowed for the environmental movement to get stronger, more big,” she added. Myanmar’s environmental movement has had some success in bringing the Salween into the spotlight, out of its historical marginalization in the ethnic minority areas along the country’s eastern borders. Still the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, the Salween remains one of the world’s richest veins of ethnic and biological diversity. It harbors a collection of indigenous

cultures and pristine habitats — found nowhere else on earth — and all are at stake in damming the river. Myanmar’s government hopes to exploit the Salween’s energy potential and generate revenue by selling electricity from a cascade of giant dams. They will get some of the electricity, but most will be exported to China and Thailand. If the dams go through as planned, huge reservoirs will be left in place of flowing rivers, massively disrupting the architecture of surrounding ecosystems. They will eradicate forests and farmland, and cause mass displacement of people already stricken by poverty and conflict. They can destroy fisheries. They will increase erosion and dramatically change the levels of silt and sediment downstream, which will lead to increased salinization of its waters near the river mouth. The Salween has multiple futures mapped out. China’s apparent decision to shelve plans ( to dam the upper section of the Salween (Nu) could wildly change its upstream development pathway — a victory for scientists and environmental groups who have worked to document the river’s biodiversity and make the case for preserving its integrity. Downstream, that same integrity makes the Salween a kind of final frontier for the heavyweight Chinese and Thai dam developers that have built large hydroelectric dams across the region. The multibillion-dollar investment projects will help Myanmar keep pace with the breakneck speed of Asia’s industrial development,

but at the cost of thousands of ethnic minority peoples’ livelihoods and of one of Southeast Asia’s most wild and enigmatic landscapes.

The author would like to thank the people of Ei Thu Tha and Htee Htay Khee IDP camps, Kaw Ku islanders, the Mong Pan Youth Association, Action for Shan State Rivers, the Karen Environmental Social Action Network, and local researchers who have requested anonymity, without whom gaining access and gathering information to compile this series would have been impossible. You can follow or get in touch with Demelza on Twitter at @DemelzaStokes ( or via her website (

Article published by Isabel Esterman

Demand for elephant skin driving up poaching in Myanmar (warning: graphic images) by Shreya Dasgupta on 6 June 2017

Elephant hide is reportedly being used for traditional medicine or is being turned into jewellery. With an increase in demand for elephant skin and teeth, elephant mothers and calves are also being killed. WWF has launched a #SaveTheirSkins campaign to help put a stop to elephant


A new elephant poaching “crisis” is emerging in Myanmar, WWF announced yesterday ( In addition to targeting wild elephants for their tusks, poachers are now killing elephants for their skin. The hide is reportedly being used for traditional medicine or is being turned into jewellery. Since 2013, more than 100 elephants have been killed for their skin, WWF said. In the first few months of this year alone poachers have killed at least 20 elephants, surpassing the yearly average elephant poaching rate for Myanmar. Each animal, killed with poisoned darts, was skinned or close to being skinned, Rohit Singh, Global Wildlife Law Enforcement Specialist at WWF, told Mongabay. “Elephant skins have been in the market for the past few years, but we recently noticed a sudden increase in demand,” Singh said.

“While reasons behind this surge in demand remain unknown, we are seeing this reflected in the numbers of wild elephants found killed and skinned.”

Elephants are increasingly being killed for their skin in Myanmar. Photo by Aung Myo Chit.

Fewer than 2,000 wild elephants are estimated to survive in the country now. And this recent elephant skin fad could cause their populations to collapse, conservationists warn. Ivory poaching in Asian countries typically targets tusked male elephants since females usually lack tusks. In Myanmar, this has resulted in a skewed sex ratio of the wild elephant populations. But now, with an increase in

demand for elephant skin and teeth, mothers and calves are also being killed. “This additional pressure on young ones and breeding females will have serious amplifications on the future survival of this species in Myanmar,” Singh said. “This is why it is so important to put a stop to this crisis now, before Myanmar’s wild elephant populations become biologically unviable.”

Elephant skin on sale at Golden Rock market in Myanmar. Photo by anonymous.

The recent surge in poaching for elephant skin is being exacerbated by weak law enforcement. For example, when AFP reporters visited ( Golden Rock, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar, they found several shops openly selling slices of elephant skin for just a few dollars per square inch of skin. Shutting down these markets, and increasing protection for the elephants is key to combatting the illegal wildlife trade, WWF said. “We urgently need to deploy ranger squads into key priority areas where the elephants are being poached from – Bago Yoma and Ayeyarwady Delta,” Singh said. “These ranger squads will be well-trained and equipped to defend the remaining elephants. In the mid- to longterm, more can be done to put a stop to illegal trade of wildlife in Myanmar and the region. In Myanmar, we want to work with

the government to close down the key markets where illegal wildlife products are sold.” To help put a stop to elephant poaching, WWF has launc a #SaveTheirSkins campaign ( utm_source=mediarelease&utm_campaign=SaveTheirSk “We are witnessing the perfect storm for wild elephants in Myanmar,” Christy Williams, Country Director of WWFMyanmar, said in a statement. “We urge people and governments across this region to come together to support increased protection for the last remaining wild Asian elephants in Myanmar and beyond.”

Elephants in Myanmar. Photo by Christy Williams.

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Article published by Shreya Dasgupta

Conducted by Fauna & Flora International, the survey found that the mangrove breeding ground is actually mostly covered with Phoenix paludosa, or Mangrove date palm. Some areas within the sanctuary with endangered mangrove tree species have been identified and therefore have a higher chance of being protected from illegal logging and experts contend that a new, detailed restoration plan is needed to save MKWS. The MKWS finding highlights challenges to conservation work in Myanmar, which are often long and difficult to implement, and susceptible to unstable political and ethnic conflict.

YANGON, Myanmar – Conservation work in Myanmar has been met with various challenges such as limited funding, an unstable political situation and poor management plans for forest reserves. Now, a recent analysis of a drone survey has found that the last remaining mangrove breeding ground in Myanmar’s delta region actually has very few mangrove trees. The first-ever drone analysis of Mein-ma-hla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary (MKWS) in Myanmar’s southern Irrawaddy Delta was conducted in mid-October by Fauna and Flora International (FFI). The results of that analysis,

which have not yet been publicly distributed, were shared with Mongabay.

First-ever drone survey image from MKWS shows that the island is covered with mostly Phoenix paludosa instead of mangrove trees. Courtesy of Fauna & Flora International.

According to the drone survey findings from the approximately 53-square-mile wetland mangrove reserve , mangrove trees are largely spread around the outskirts of the island and the surrounding areas of 6 out of 7 of the stations that belong to the Forestry Department. The majority of the island is actually covered with Phoenix paludosa, also called Mangrove Date Palm, a species of flowering plants in the palm family. The drone footage did help identify the location of larger and endangered mangrove trees within the sanctuary. The areas within the sanctuary with endangered mangrove tree species that were identified may now have a higher chance of being protected from illegal logging.

The findings have sent a shock wave through the local forestry department and Myanmar’s conservation experts who FFI shared the research with. The forestry department could not be reached for comment. “The situation is very devastating, it was clear that all large mangroves as been removed. Nargis (a 2008 cyclone) had a big impact on the bigger tress, but it’s clear the major impact is from firewood extraction,” said Frank Momberg, director of FFI Myanmar.

A drone image shows people in boats loaded with wood inside the MKWS mangrove sanctuary in October 2016. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

Drone footage collected by FFI clearly shows fishing boats inside MKWS wildlife sanctuary with stockpiles of wood carefully loaded on their boats. Residents of surrounding villages also routinely collect wood in the area. “With very limited law enforcement, patrolling and managing of the the sanctuary is a very challenging,” said

Momberg. “But now we will focus on protecting the core area so there is no further degradation.” According to Momberg, in order to save MKWS, a detailed restoration plan and major investment are needed, but at the moment neither the government nor FFI have the resources to conduct significant restoration projects.

Local e orts

Despite troubles such as funding for tree planting and obtaining land ( from local authorities, raising awareness among villagers and the country’s unstable political situation remain the biggest challenges for conservation efforts. U Htay Lay has participated in mangrove tree workshops all across the world including India, China and Thailand. Originally from the small town of Bogale in the Delta region, he worked for years as an officer for the forestry department in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. “I’m happy to be back here,” said U Htay Lay, on his way last month to the land that he and his team bought and built with their own hands, Mangrove Service Network Island, or MSN Island. The island just 58 acres and lies due north of MKWS on River Bogale. U Htay Lay and his team bought the island back in 2012 from a rice farmer for $2,350 in order to

avoid having to transfer the land back to the government.

U Htay Lay, secretary of Mangrove Service Network (MSN) shows off a mangrove tree flower on MSN Island. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay

“It was low ground land and can no longer be used to grow rice, so we wanted to use it as a base for conservation work,” he explained. Other than preserving the trees already on the island, they have actively been growing ten different species of mangroves and fresh water trees on the island. The purpose of the island is to use it as a nursing ground for mangroves and as an education center. They also launched a campaign to educate the approximately 75 percent of villagers who rely on fishing for survival. The campaign’s message is simple: if you protect the forest, you protect the fish and your livelihood. They’ve also worked to prevent villagers from coming to the island to collect wood by connecting with them and educating them that it is a private land and off limits.

“Funding is always difficult, but we’ve been lucky with funds from various embassies in Myanmar, and we keep things cheap by building it with our own hands,” said U Htay Lay. The network also generates income from nursing certain mangroves for various conversation groups across the country.

Regional conservation work

Other conservation work is being carried out throughout Myanmar. CARE, an international humanitarian agency with long term development projects, has been establishing community forestry in Rakhine state in the northwest of Myanmar since 1997. “We chose Rakhine state due to its environmental damage and because it is one of the less developed state in Myanmar,” said Nilar Shwe, a program director for CARE Myanmar. According to a preliminary analysis released by International Organisat ( mangroves between 1988 and 2015. The loss of mangrove forest is caus ( h households and more than 100 acres of farmland have fallen victim to r of Myanmar.

A villager stands in front of a rice paddy in one of the villages surrounding MKWS. The area used to be mangrove forest, but since people started to move in about 40 years ago, much of the land has been transformed into rice paddy fields. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay

The path to recovery is far from simple. Daw Nilar Shwe says that extensive work needs to be done before even planting a single tree. “We have to form a community forest management group with the villagers, and use that group to apply for land from forestry department, and obtain a certificate to use the land by local authorize,” Shwe said. But after every step is completed, successful applicants are allowed to use the land for 30 years without taxes or fees. Then the work can finally begin. “We train villagers to plant trees for firewood, timber but also for environmental protection in the community forest,” Shwe said. Many people in the Rakhine region are landless, but according to regulations for forming a community forest, all members must have once acre of land. So far the project has been initiated in 120 villages in Maungdaw and Buthidaung district in Northern Rakhine state, at a cost of $600,000 per year with funding from the EU, AusAID and various other organizations.

Regional tensions

The most difficult part of this project, according to Shwe, is the uncertain political situation in

Myanmar. She says that a lot of the community forest was distorted in the 2012 Rakhine riots, in which at least 82 people were killed, 4,600 homes burned and more than 22,000 people were displaced due to a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist community, according to the government. Nine police officers were killed and four wounded in Maungdaw, Rakhine State in early October this year, which triggered another series of violence leading to a lock down in the district. The Myanmar military has killed about 69 members of what it has described as a Rohingya Muslim militant group since the conflict began, according to Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-controlled newspaper, on November 15. Ostensibly, the conflict has had a serious impact on conservation efforts. “We had to suspend our implementation in that area since October,” said Shwe. “Many of the community forests are shared between villagers of different religion at our projects sites in Northern Rakhine, but due to all these conflicts, the trust between villagers are gone and will be very hard to be rebuilt again.” Banner image: Ann Wang is a foreign correspondent and photojournalist based in Myanmar. You can find her on Instagram at AnnWang077 (

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Ethnic armed groups in Myanmar’s border states have been in conflict with the central government for more than half a century. Civil society groups, ethnic political groups and ethnic armed groups already blame the Salween dams for either exacerbating existing conflict or prompting new military incursions. The UNHCR estimates that as of December 2015, Myanmar already has some 400,000 internally displaced persons, entire communities who have had to flee from war, natural disasters or development projects. Many fear the dams could create thousands more.

Leh Paw, an ethnic Karen woman taking refuge in Htee Htay Khee village speaks with Mongabay in November. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

“I just get poorer and poorer,” Leh Paw, a Karen woman recently displaced due to conflict in Myanmar’s Karen (Kayin) state, told Mongabay in November.

This is the third time in 30-yearold Leh Paw’s life that she has been forced to leave her village due to conflict, “You see me now, I live in poverty. I just get poorer and poorer, until I have nothing. Because of the conflict I have had to flee, again and again. And when we flee we have to give up everything, our property, paddy fields, buffalos, crops. We have nothing left.” Leh Paw is from Po Chi Ler village in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area of Hlaingbwe township, Karen state. She fled from her home earlier this year due to ongoing violent clashes between the Tatmadaw, its allied Border Guard Force (BGF), and a splinter group of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). Along with her husband and two children, Leh Paw is among over 300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are still taking refuge in Htee Thay Khee village on the bank of the west bank of the Moei River in eastern Myanmar, at the border with Thailand. Htee Thay Khee’s IDPs are the latest in hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority people who have been displaced through Myanmar’s decades of conflict. In 2014 there were approximately 110,000 IDPs in southeast Myanmar, displaced due to war, natural disasters or large-scale development projects, according to a survey ( by The Border Consortium (a group of non-governmental organizations). To the north, 300,000 people (

state) are thought to have been displaced from Shan state alone during Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) offensives in the 1990s.

Hlaingbwe in Karen (Kayin) State lies north of the Salween Delta, between Yangon and the Thai border. Inset shows conflicts from the 1990s until early 2016. Map courtesy of Map for Environment, inset courtesy of CenterLeftRight and Aoetearoa/Wikimedia Commons.

This is the second article in a five-part series exploring Myanmar’s Salween landscape amid galvanizing plans to develop hydropower projects along its course. Part I ( outlines plans being made by businesses and governments in China, Thailand and Myanmar to harness the Salween’s vast hydroelectric potential. Part III ( uncovers some of the Salween’s ethnic and ecological biodiversity at stake, focusing on the Kun Heng “thousand islands,” a unique riverine ecology facing submersion under the Mong Ton dam reservoir in Shan State. Part IV ( meets actors involved in creating the ‘Salween Peace Park,” combining wildlife conservation and peacebuilding in Karen State, where the world’s longest running civil war has raged since 1949.

Part V ( on downstream Salween communities’ livelihoods and ongoing changes facing the broader Salween landscape due to Myanmar’s rapid economic development. Myanmar’s ethnic border states have been riven by almost seventy years of conflict. From a few months after Myanmar gained independence in January 1948 right up until today, ethnic organizations have been pursuing armed struggle to advance their political demands. These have ranged from full independence to greater autonomy and federalism, and started with the Karen National Union (KNU) which began fighting government forces in early 1949. Since 2011 — when formergeneral Thein Sein was sworn in as president of the new nominally-civilian government after the country’s first elections in 20 years — Myanmar has undergone significant reforms and has tried to initiate a comprehensive peace process. On October 15, 2015, the Tatmadaw and eight armed groups signed a multilateral agreement, known as the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). It is not truly “nationwide,” however, since many ethnic armed organizations did not sign it — including seven ethnic armed organizations that have signed separate bilateral ceasefires with the Thein Sein-led

government, and four that have no individual ceasefire agreements with the government and are involved in ongoing conflict with the Tatmadaw. Building on the patchy NCA, this year’s newly elected government (led by the National League for Democracy) convened with the country’s armed groups to negotiate a national peace settlement at the “Union Peace Conference” during August and September. Meanwhile, conflict continues, and fighting has intensified ( in northern Shan state during November between an alliance of four ethnic armed groups (none of whom are signatories to the NCA) and the Myanmar army, leading to the recent displacement of 3,000 people ( to China.

A soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army’s Brigade 5 stands on the west bank of the Salween. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Amid Myanmar’s intensely complex conflict scenario, plans press forwa build the five large Salween dams, which all lie in or near areas of cont governance in Shan, Karenni and Karen states. Due to the dangerous s on the ground in most of the dam site areas, it is extremely difficult fo researchers, journalists and local civilians to independently verify the s the projects.This August, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy’ (MOEP) permanent secretary said at a press conference that the Salwe

would go ahead ( And in a recent Strategic Environmental Assessment workshop (more in III), the MOEP outlined estimated completion dates for the dams, runn 2021-2031 ( 6ad04c0cfe0b/IFC%27s+SEA+Workshop.pdf?MOD=AJPERES). The nationwide SEA aims to “promote consensus on a sustainable hydr pathway for Myanmar,” and is being led by the World Bank Group’s Int Corporation (IFC), which signed an advisory services agreement to coo in implementing the SEA. Observers ( myanmar-s-hydropower-study-truly-be-for-the-people.html) welcome the improve public engagement and negotiation across Myanmar’s hydropo introduction of international standards such as the IFC’s Performance S operating in Myanmar. The IFC’s Performance Standard 4 encourages s operating (investing) in conflict or post-conflict scenarios, stating ( MOD=AJPERES) that the risks that a project could exacerbate an exis should “not be overlooked as it may lead to further conflict.” Fear of the dams fueling more conflict in Myanmar’s ethnic areas led to a coalition of ethnic Shan political groups to call for the government to halt the Salween dam plans in August this year. “This is a conflict area, until now, the dams could affect peace and cause a lot more conflict in our ethnic areas,” Nang War Nu, Director of the Kun Heing Foundation and ex-member of parliament for the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party told Mongabay.Further to the south in Karen state, ethnic political and military leaders have also urged the government to put a moratorium on the Salween dam projects until there is real peace in the country. “During the peace process, or until we have genuine peace, any mega-development projects should not go ahead,” General Baw Kyaw Heh, Vice Chief of Staff of the KNU’s armed wing, told Mongabay earlier this

year. “These deals were signed between the Myanmar government and the foreign companies, not with the inclusion of the Karen people. We haven’t been included in any discussion regarding how these dams will benefit the people. In fact, they have created destruction even before they’ve been started.” he said. Observers question the government’s ability to ensure genuinely participatory and transparent consultations with communities living around the Salween dams as IDPs continue to flee from conflict near the sites in Myanmar’s Shan and Karen states (more in Part III). “It is unclear whether the SEA will be able to stop the clock on controversial projects to enable meaningful and inclusive debate about whether projects should be built,” Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator at environmental group International Rivers told Mongabay. Evidence of construction activities already occurring at the dam sites highlights the massive discrepancies between hopes at policy level in Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital) and the reality of life on the ground in active conflict zones, where a multitude of actors operate outside the control of the central government (including possibly the Myanmar army and private companies). UN special rapporteur on human rights for

Myanmar Yanghee Lee said in July she “observed the very real tension between a new civilian leadership and a bureaucracy inherited from previous military regimes which often resulted in a duality in policy and approach.” Critics of the dams fear the projects are already bulldozing ahead with scant regard for the welfare of local people and with no genuine mechanisms in place to ensure that they are either involved in public consultations or receive fair compensation if they give up their land for the projects. Land disputes in Myanmar are a “major national problem” according to Human Rights Watch, which found those displaced by natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects (even in peaceful areas) are often displaced without adequate consultation, compensation, or due process of law.In Karen state, ethnic Karen leaders and local people directly connect recent fighting in Karen state with the drive to build the Hat Gyi dam. The clashes in September this year in Myaing Gyi Ngu and Mae Tha Waw areas of Karen state’s Hlaingbwe township led to the displacement of around five thousand people. Some attribute this year’s conflict to efforts by the Tatmadaw via its allied BGF to rein in a renegade DKBAsplinter group, who are not a signatory to the NCA. But observing the topography of the areas in question, some ethnic political leaders in the KNU,

leaders of the KNU’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and civil society link the recent conflict in Karen state with the need to secure access roads to and the Hat Gyi dam site.

Lieutenant Colonel Kyaw Mue of the KNLA’s Brigade 5 has been based on the Salween for over 20 years. “I don’t think it is good to build dams on Salween River in our territories at this moment as the peace process is not completed and there is no certainty for a lasting peace,” he told Mongabay. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

The fighting occurred in areas along the Myaing Gyi Ngu – Mae Tha W near to the Hat Gyi site to the Thai border. Observers call it an “acces ( to Hat Gyi, that will be needed to transport construction materials from work on the dam. The KNLA’s General Baw Kyaw Heh told NGO Karen statement this year, ( “In order to implement the plan for Hat Gyi Dam, the Burmese and BG the road and the surrounding areas.” In their statement, KRW accuses pretense of eliminating the DKBA splinter group to take control of mo dam site. “It is important that fighting stops in the area. It is KNU policy that before we have reached a political agreement with the government, these mega-projects should not be built,” Naw Zipporah Sein, vice chairperson of the KNU, told Mongabay in a phone interview. Concerned with the recent escalation in fighting, the KNU released a statement (

tells-burma-army-to-cease-hostilities-inkaren-state.html) on September 13 calling for the Tatmadaw and the BGF to cease military activity in Karen state, stating it could derail the peace process. The Hat Gyi dam will be located in Karen state’s Hlaingbwe township, approximately fifty kilometers from the Thai border and 100 kilometers from the mouth of the river in Mon state, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. The 1,360 MW project, ( will be developed by EGAT International Co. Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Thailand’s stateowned Electricity Generating Authority), Myanmar’s energy ministry (MOEP), Myanmar’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Co. (IGE), and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro. IGE company is owned by the son of former military regime minister Aung Thaung (, who died last year, and was placed on the United States Treasury Department’s blacklist in 2014 for ‘…perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption,’ ( as well as undermining Myanmar’s democratic transition. The MOEP’s estimated completion date for the Hat Gyi dam is 2020-2021 ( MOD=AJPERES). MILITARIZATION AROUND THE DAMS ALREADY MAKING LIFE UNBEARABLE FOR CIVILIANS Researchers have documented militarization of the Salween dam areas through expansion of army camps and army personnel, increased checkpoints along access roads, and through the provision of security for construction companies (and mining or logging companies). Some of the areas have essentially become no-go zones for local people. “When the

companies come to visit and implement the projects, the military comes to protect them and provides security. Because of that they also don’t allow locals to go there,” Nang Kham Mai, campaign coordinator at the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization, told Mongabay. Residents living around the Salween dam sites have documented an increase in other activities such as logging and mining in the future reservoir sites. Companies affiliated with the Tatmadaw, the Tatmadaw itself and ethnic armed groups all engage in a militarized extraction of Myanmar’s rich natural resources. In areas where rule of law is thin on the ground, this carries with it a deluge of threats (and human rights abuses) to local people living near the dam sites where preemptive resource extraction takes place. The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) reported in 2013 ( option=com_content&view=article&id=394:13december-2013-&catid=75:action-updae) that the Tatmadaw provided security for loggers clearing teak from the Mong Ton dam’s projected flood zone, and conscripted local villagers into forced labor for the military. Forced labor and a host of other human rights violations by armed groups have propelled thousands of ethnic Shan people to migrate to Thailand over the last two decades.

A Chinese gold mining boat picture north of the Mong Ton dam site in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Mong Pan Youth Association.

More recently, local researchers working on a project with thinktank CGIAR documented in February this year that the Myanmar army and a Lahu militia provide security for the Chinese construction and gold mining companies currently operating at the Mong Ton dam site. Chinese companies hired the Lahu militia through the Myanmar army to provide them with protection, villagers living near the dam site claimed. The villagers also told researchers that when the Chinese (and their security) are present, they are too afraid to venture into the forest except during daylight hours, and do not go to the river to fish or pan for gold at any time the Chinese are present. Some activists are afraid that these conditions will result in a forceful depopulation of the area surrounding the Mong Ton dam site. “Those who belong to the Thanlwin river are the people who will be most affected by the dams,” Daw Nang Khin Thar Ye, current member of parliament and member of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, told Mongabay. “They have already suffered from years of war, so I am against the dam projects,” she said.Whether or not dams are a root cause of conflict in Myanmar, ongoing conflict and well-documented militarization around the dam sites is causing

the displacement of thousands of ethnic people, many of whom remain unable to return home. With the dams moving forward in the meantime, it remains to be seen if Myanmar’s new civilian government can ensure dam companies commit to international standards of practice and ensure affected peoples’ human rights. For now, villagers fleeing conflict in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area are too afraid to return because of landmines planted during this year’s conflict. “I fled with nothing,” Leh Paw told Mongabay, “I came here in the clothes I am in. We left all our belongings. We couldn’t carry food, rice, or clothes. We didn’t finish planting our crops. My husband wants to go back, but we are too scared.” Continue reading Part III (, which explores ethnic and ecological diversity in areas that will be affected by the dams.

Article published by Isabel Esterman

Mongabay Series: Endangered Environmentalists, Global Forests

Attacks on journalists in Myanmar highlight complications, dangers for the media by on 15 December 2016

Soe Moe Tun’s murder was followed the next day by a roadside attack on journalist Kyaw Thura Myo. Myanmar is on the Committee to Protect Journalists list “10 Most Censored Countries” list. Reporting on the illegal logging industry in the country has exacerbated security risks in the past year.

The murder of a Burmese reporter investigating illegal logging and the roadside beating of another, both in Myanmar earlier this week, have raised new fears about media safety in the country. Soe Moe Tun, a 37 year-old Burmese reporter with Daily Eleven newspaper, was found “severely beaten” ( to death by the side of a highway near the town of Monywa in Myanmar’s central Sagaing region on Dec. 13. Police are investigating his murder but robbery doesn’t appear to be the motive: his valuables were found at the crime scene.

Eleven Media HQ in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay

Kyaw Zaw Linn is editor-in-chief at Eleven Media, which owns Daily Eleven. He said in an interview with Mongabay that Soe Moe Tun was the newspaper’s

only reporter based in Monywa and had never mentioned any security concerns. The Sagaing region is well known as a hub for illegal logging that operates in spite of a logging ban that’s been in effect for most of 2016. Soe Moe Tun had reported twenty stories for the outlet since January 2015 and was the father of an eight year-old boy. It’s not the first time the outlet has been targeted. “This case shows that, we journalists have to care and be careful about everything, especially our safety,” said Linn. “Last year, our CEO U Than Htut Aung was attacked on July 14 in front of our office building and now he is waiting for the defamation trial (” He added that despite the apparent risks, other reporters with the media group will continue their work. “We are scared of what happened to Soe Moe Tun, but we are journalists, we have chosen our profession, so we are not afraid (of doing our job).” According to the Myanmar Journalist Network, Soe Moe Tun isn’t the only journalist to have been targeted by timber traffickers. In a statement, the group said Tin Zaw Oo, a journalist based in Myanmar’s Mandalay region was forced into hiding in the past two months following threats from timber traders. Illegal

timber trafficking in that area has also been active, despite recent crackdowns ( by authorities. On Wednesday, Kyaw Thura Myo was attacked in Mandalay, just two hours east of Monywa, though it’s not clear why he was attacked. Kyaw Thura Myo has worked for a journal that focuses on agricultural and farming news called The Farmer since 2012. In a December 15 statement, the Farmer Media Group said that he was surrounded and beaten by four assailants on the roadside at about 9 p.m. while returning home by motorcycle. The motive for the attack is unknown and there is no evidence that his case is related to the attack on Soe Moe Ton. However, Eleven Media Group ( did quote a video he posted on Facebook noting that his publication had recently reported on the trade situation in Muse, a border region with China in Myanmar’s restive northeastern region. China imports hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal timber overland from Myanmar every year, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). An EIA report released in 2015 ( details how the Chinese pay (

china) “in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains” and rely on the corruption of local officials to pass through checkpoints.

A truck load of timber heads towards the ports at Yangon for export. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay

In the region where Soe Moe Tun was murdered, logging is so common in the towns and villages surrounding the forested hills that in some places, nearly everyone seems to have a stake. In the words of one official there who asked not to be named in an interview: “The profession of this town is logging.” Reporting on it, however, isn’t so welcome – especially since a recent ban made the trade illegal. In one town, officials recently said the industry had been relatively open until the ban and had since been pushed underground. Now, few people want to talk for fear of being

thrown in jail, and activists are extremely reluctant and afraid to go to some of the remote areas where logging takes place. Some of the people involved could be dangerous, they said, and many are on drugs. Corruption has helped logging to continue in many places and officials sought to play down how much they knew about the trade, for fear of being accused of involvement. The situation is so complex that reporting on it is difficult work that requires experienced reporters, institutional knowledge and support from outlets, and at least basic safety training. Yet Myanmar is a place where even the concept of freedom of the press is very new: the country came under a quasi-civilian government in 2011 after decades of military rule. It takes ninth place on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s “10 Most Censored Countries (” list. Several laws meant to protect the media were only recently instituted. In 2014 the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law (PPEL) was adopted, which officially abolished prior censorship and made a path for

the editorial independence of newspapers from the state. The Broadcasting Law of 2015 made way for private, public and community media to flourish. It was late 2015 when the Myanmar News Media Council was established. A first-ever assessment of its kind by UNESCO ( and press freedom NGO International Media Support found in a report released in June 2016 ( that there is a “skills deficit” among reporters employed by the proliferation of new media publishers. The assessment took 18 months and looked at 50 key indicators in Myanmar’s media landscape. Zaw Htike, a trainer at Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), said that of Myanmar’s roughly 4,000 journalists, only about one-third have had any type of safety training for reporting. MJI is the first private and independent journalism school in Myanmar and gives courses on basic journalism training, election coverage, business reporting, environmental reporting, and investigative reporting.They have trained hundreds of students.

A screen shot of Soe Moe Ton’s Facebook posting from Dec. 6 where he shared notes with names and phone numbers of illegal loggers and colluding police. Soe Moe Tun/Facebook

Despite their work, Htike said many reporters are still very new to the industry, and may not understand basic safety protocols. Add to that a boom in competition and pressure to get the story. Since the government allowed the publication of daily newspapers in 2013, the number of journalists has doubled, according to Htike. Some safety protocols just come down to keeping a low prof Soe Moe Tun’s case, on December 6 – less than a week befo was killed – he shared his own post on Facebook ( fbid=633188453476502&set=pcb.633188513476496&type=3&t from 2014 that included photos of a notebook with the names contact information of illegal loggers caught in 2014.

The notebook also listed the names of local authorities, details about police checkpoints, and the names of the police connected with illegal loggers and their phone numbers. In a note at the top of the post he wrote “feeling amazing.” As of Thursday, the post had been shared over 600 times. Journalists are not the only ones at risk ( Many governments have responded to the work of environmental defenders and environmental NGOs by increasing restrictions, including revoking charity status, increasing sentences for protestors, and passing legislation restricting NGO activity. According to Htike, journalists working in Myanmar need to be particularly aware of the big picture. “Myanmar is not a very safe place to work,” he said. “That’s why we need our journalists, media industry, we all have to work together in order to create a safe media environment. I still have hope for the journalism industry in Myanmar.” Banner image: The front page of Daily Eleven in Yangon, Myanmar the day after the murder of one of its reporters. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

‘The ones we named are all dead now’: dolphins and shers struggle to survive in Myanmar by Kayla Walsh on 13 June 2017

Irrawaddy dolphins and traditional fishermen hunt cooperatively along the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. Electro-fishermen are threatening this tradition by illegally overfishing the river.

The government of Myanmar and the Wildlife Conservation Society have responded by working together to implement ecotourism programs and conservation policies.

Fishermen in the Irrawaddy River have been fishing cooperatively with dolphins for generations. Photo: Alex Diment.

Drifting down the moonlit Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in Myanmar, gangs of fishermen drop car batteries into the water. Electrocution, or “shock,” fishing is punishable by hefty fines and years in jail, but that hasn’t deterred fishermen, who can stun entire schools of fish at once and rake in the profits.

Come morning, traditional local fishermen rehearse their dance with the Irrawaddy river dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). The fishermen rhythmically tap sticks on the side of their canoes and make chattering noises until smooth grey bodies break the surface. With a flick of a dolphin’s flukes, the hunt is on. The dolphins herd fish into the outstretched nets of the awaiting fishermen. When the men pull in their nets, they throw fish back for their partners. “We used to name the dolphins, but the ones we named are all dead now,” said U Nay Myo Aung, a tall and well-built 34-year-old cooperative fisherman and father of two sons living in Inndawang village. Aung is working with a travel agent and welcomes at least three groups of guests every month for dolphin tours.

A critically endangered dolphin in the Irrawaddy River dives for fish. Photo: Alex Diment.

Cooperative shing – A symbiotic tradition

This old, symbiotic relationship between human and animal is unique – but it may not last long. Thanks to shock fishing, cooperative fishermen say that most of their catch is gone by morning. It takes them longer to find enough fish to feed their families, and the fishermen warn that shock fishing is directly killing the dolphins as well.

“I see at least one or two dead dolphins every year,” recalls U Htay Win, a farmer and selfproclaimed dolphin watcher for the past 15 years. On April 28th, Win spotted a dead dolphin washed ashore along the Myanmar River, allegedly due to electrocution. The dead dolphin was only three-and-a-half years old, according to Win. At 54 years of age, Win sports a “Save the Irrawaddy dolphins” Tshirt, an outfit he dons to welcome guests or patrol the river. He takes his boat out twice every day, once in the morning and once in the evening, checking for missing or injured dolphins. There are usually nine or ten dolphins in each group near the villages along this stretch of the Irrawaddy. He reports to the police whenever he sees fishers using shock fishing.

U Htay Win, 54, patrols the river twice per day, making sure all dolphins are accounted for. He discovered a dolphin last April, possibly killed by shock fishermen. Photo: Ann Wang.

“I realized that dolphins are our best friend while I was out fishing at a very young age. Sometimes if you fall asleep in your boat, the dolphins will come and try to wake you up!” said Win. He started doing dolphin protection work because he wants to thank the dolphins for taking care of him and his fellow fishers. Roughly sixty fishermen in six villages still cooperatively fish with the dolphins. Win learned the special whistle to attract the

dolphins from an elderly person. Afraid this traditional knowledge would disappear, he started a tenday workshop to teach the skill to others.

A dead dolphin from the Irrawaddy River, likely due to shock fishing. Photo: Alex Diment

Counting dolphins

Between 2002 and 2016, 42 dolphins were found dead in Myanmar, 29 of them in the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA). The ADPA spans 74 kilometers of the Irrawaddy River in the central dry zone of Myanmar, encompassing nearly a third of the dolphin’s range in the river. Forty villages exist within the ADPA and most of these communities rely on fishing for sustenance. The ADPA was the first national aquatic protected area in Myanmar, established by the Department of Fisheries (DOF) in 2005. In 2012 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) counted a total of just 67 dolphins in the ADPA. That number decreased to 64 in 2014 and dwindled the next year to a mere 58 individuals in the river. Last February the WCS team launched a ten-day annual survey that revealed a more promising uptick: 67-69 dolphins including four calves.

“It’s an encouraging sign that the dolphins are still breeding in the river,” Alex Diment, WCS senior technical advisor to Myanmar, said. There are two different types of Irrawaddy dolphins – freshwater and marine populations. Their native range once extended from India and Bangladesh in the northwest to Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Coastal or marine populations in Myanmar occur in Rakhine State, the Irrawaddy Delta, and the Taninthari region.

Fishermen on the Irrawaddy River work with dolphins to catch fish. Photo: Alex Diment

Only three rivers in the world now host freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, one of which is the Irrawaddy in Myanmar. Three separate pods live in the river and all are Critically Endangered. The dolphins are often seen travelling in groups of two or three, along the river. They use echolocation to hunt and are known to spit streams of water to stun their prey. Besides electric fishing, the smiling dolphin – as they are affectionately called by locals – endures threats from gill and drag nets, logging, dredging, proposed dams, industrialization of coastal areas and mercury pollution from gold mining. WCS has partnered with the DOF since 2002 to implement a Management Plan for the ADPA to mitigate threats to the Irrawaddy River.

Irrawaddy river dolphins subgroup that presides in the Mekong Delta are considered Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, given their Indo-Pacific population is estimated to drop 30 percent over the next three generations. They are also listed as an Appendix I species of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – the most endangered among all CITES listings. Photo: Alex Diment.

Currently, the DOF deploys one patrol boat twice per month on weeklong trips. They help enforce rules against illegal shock fishing, conduct research, and develop conservation tools like tourism programs. They also depend on locals, like Win, to monitor the situation. Win says he reports to the police whenever he sees fishermen shock fishing. According to him,

seven boats were arrested for using electronic fishing this year before the New Year festival in April. “They will each have to go [to] the prison for three years with a fine of 30,000 kyat ($2,000 USD),” he said.

WCS crew embarks on a trip down the Irrawaddy River for an official dolphin population count. There were 67-69 individual dolphins sighted last February, 2017. Photo: Alex Diment.

Ecotourism for dolphins

Myanmar has suffered a long history of oppression. First ruled by the British Empire in the 1800s and more recently by a military junta, the nation was considered a pariah state while under isolationist, military rule from 1962 to 2011. Restrictive visas and poor transport and lodging options rendered tourism virtually non-existent until recently. Under the new National League for Democracy (NLD) – currently serving as the governing party – Myanmar has opened itself up to globalized trade, resource extraction, access to international news, and tourism. Locals and government officials are hopeful that tourism will raise awareness of the artful tradition of cooperative fishing and in turn inspire marine and river conservation. Already, Myanmar’s cooperative fishing with the Irrawaddy dolphin has garnered national and international attention and helped Myanmar’s tourism industry. Cooperative

fishing villages estimate they receive roughly 2,300 visitors per year.

U Htay Win says that he supports the development of ecotourism, as it will draw attention to dolphin conservation. Photo: Ann Wang.

“I support the development of ecotourism in this area,” Win said. “We all have to find a way to survive and make money, especially when the government won’t give you [a] salary for doing dolphin protection-related work. Also, not everyone in Myanmar knows that there are dolphins in the Irrawady River, so I think the government needs to do a better job at educating the people.”

Tourism seeks to disincentivize shock fishing by making traditional fishing equally – or even more – lucrative. Aung welcomes the development of ecotourists because it helps generate income for his family. Per trip with a tourist group he can make up to 4,0000 kyat ($30). Aung reports taking at least three groups every month and sees dolphins about sixty percent of the time. He believes the development of eco-tourism won’t harm the dolphins, especially when compared to the detriments of shock fishing.

U Htay Win uses a special whistle on the boat to attract the dolphins. He is afraid that this skill will disappear in Myanmar so he collaborated with the government to do a workshop in 2014 to pass down this knowledge. Photo: Ann Wang.

“If well managed with significant local community involvement, tourism can bring income directly to local communities and fishermen, giving them a positive incentive to engage with dolphin conservation, and support measures to reduce threats, such as illegal fishing,” Diment said. But in order for tourism to grow, hotels and restaurants must be built to accommodate rising influxes of people. Right now, most tourists sleep in local monasteries. Aung said he would consider doing tourism full time if possible, but in the meantime he continues to fish as well. Aung said that he’s heard that the NLD government plans to make four villages, including his, official stations for Irrawaddy

dolphin tours by 2018, including building more hotels. But such plans remain unconfirmed. And improved infrastructure can come with a price: there are reports of illegal sand mining for resort building. But the WCS has an initiative to work with local communities to provide smallscale infrastructure and training for community-based ecotourism projects that avoid harmful environmental repercussions.

Irrawaddy dolphin in Irrawaddy River. Photo: WCS Myanmar Program.

“Whether ecotourism can serve to protect the remaining Irrawaddy dolphins will depend on how the activities are managed and

whether they demonstrate to local populations that dolphins are worth more alive than dead,” Vicky Bowman, Director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said. She added that “there also needs to be adequate law enforcement to prevent gangs from electric fishing in addition to community pressure for protection.” Done poorly, tourism could harm both dolphins and villagers. Tour boats that follow dolphins could increase their stress levels and drive away the fish they depend on. Commercial, large-scale tourism could also culturally misappropriate the traditional practices of cooperative fishermen. Experts stress the need for the involvement of local communities in developing ecotourism programs. “If income from tourism does not benefit local people, but rather is all going to others such as boattour companies, it’s certainly a missed opportunity to positively

influence behavior, and can even lead to mistrust and disengagement in the issues by those most affected,” said Diment.

A local community along the Mekong Delta has largely been cut off from most of the world for many years. The economic benefits from ecotourism are heralded as a way to increase quality of life. “If income from tourism does not benefit local people, but rather is all going to others such as boattour companies, it’s certainly a missed opportunity…” said Diment. Photo: Ann Wang.

Colonial leftovers

Myanmar has been launched into the modern world of global trade: as international stakeholders jockey for Myanmar’s newly opened resources – oil

extraction, mining, and ecotourism – preserving local knowledge, culture and traditions will be a feat. Myanmar’s fastpaced development poses a serious threat to the future of its natural resources. Shipping ports are expanding, resort hotels are cropping up on the horizon, and marine gas exploration is barreling forward. “Various NGOs are now working to raise the profile of importance of Myanmar’s marine biodiversity, the benefits (its) protection can afford coastal peoples and local livelihoods,” Martin Callow, a former WCS technical advisor to Myanmar, said. “Connected to this is the important issue of addressing Myanmar’s fisheries sector, arguably the biggest contemporary threat to Myanmar’s marine biodiversity.” The “Mighty Irrawaddy” River lies at the heart of this development and is often referred to as the lifeline of the nation since it provides transportation, potable water, irrigation, and subsistence

fishing. Over 2,100 kilometers long, it’s Myanmar’s most important commercial waterway. The wide delta has the fifth highest sediment load of major rivers worldwide and its seasonal flooding leaves the riverbanks rich with loam for agriculture. But as climate change alters monsoon patterns, the Irrawaddy is especially prone to disastrous floods, landslides, and droughts. “Myanmar is facing many challenges at the moment…There are many priorities, with peace being the highest on almost anyone’s agenda,” Diment said. “Marine conservation is recognized as an issue, but with low capacity, poor infrastructure, limited staff, and populous and assertive neighboring countries, the challenges are significant.”

Irrawaddy dolphins fishing in the Irrawaddy River. The dolphin-fisherman relationship depends upon healthy stocks of fish. Photo: WCS Myanmar Program.

At the confluence of local knowledge and market development lies the Marine Spatial Planning Strategy (MSP). The MSP was produced by Myanmar’s DOF and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation with guidance from WCS, the University of Exeter, and Pyoe Pin, a British Council’s development program in Myanmar.

The goal of the MSP is to provide policy-makers with a roadmap toward sustainable ocean management. It lays a framework for balancing the interests of shipping channels, military security zones, oil and gas extraction, fishing zones, and protected areas. “The marine spatial planning strategy does not explicitly address Irrawaddy dolphins, but it does provide Myanmar with a roadmap that can be used to identify threats and management solutions to Irrawaddy dolphins and other species going forward,” Dr. Hedley Grantham, Lead for Spatial Planning for WCS’s Conservation Science and Solutions Program, said. WCS and other NGOs also formed the Myanmar Fisheries Partnership to conserve fisheries so that villagers and dolphins can continue to rely on one another for a bountiful catch. According to a 2016 article published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, Myanmar is

home to the most small-scale fisheries in the world. But it also has a history of poorly managed fisheries, with shock fishing only one example of its regulatory challenges. Win says that he voted for the NLD government, but feels disappointed with their leadership. “Before, if you are caught while doing electronic fishing, you will have your boat and everything on your boat confiscated, three years in prison and a fine of $2,000. But now if you volunteer to hand the tools over, you will not go to prison,” he said. “Also, the previous government [would] allow their officers doing patrols [to have] guns, but not anymore, therefore, it’s a lot more dangerous for officers to do patrols now.” Win applied for government funding for dolphin protection initiatives, but he’s not confident that it will get approved.

“Myanmar’s fisheries continue to be poorly regulated, with a system of concessions that effectively discourages sustainable practices,” Diment explained. “The laws date from the colonial era, and are urgently in need of reform.” Conservation efforts like the MSP and the Fisheries Partnership may be building blocks for balancing Myanmar’s resource independence and sustainable future. Time will tell if initiatives like MSP and eco-tourism programs will be enough to keep dolphins – and fishermen – smiling for generations to come. When asked if the Irrawaddy dolphins can be saved, U Htay Win said, “Of course.” But they have to be kept free. “Animals need to be in the wild, and dolphins need to be able to swim freely.” Additional reporting and interviews supplied by Ann Wang.

Article published by Maria Salazar

Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Illegal logging ‘ravaging’ Myanmar’s Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Reserve by Brent Crane on 16 November 2016

Indawgyi is Myanmar’s most important wetland site and under consideration as a biosphere reserve and a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its global biodiversity value. Myanmar’s timber is worth about $550 million a year on the international market, according to the World Bank. A country-wide logging ban has increased concerns over illegal logging activity in certain parts of the country. The domestic energy market that uses timber for fuel is a key driver of deforestation in Myanmar, particularly in the region of Indawgyi.

KACHIN STATE, Myanmar – At Indawgyi Lake in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State, morning

shorebirds flutter lazily above the water hyacinths, fishermen take long siestas after noon and, at night, fireflies float about in utter darkness like lost, fallen stars. Life moves slowly at Myanmar’s largest lake but in the mountains just beyond its shores buzzes a flurry of both destructive and illegal activity. Along with dozens of unregulated gold mining operations south of the lake, there churns an illegal logging industry in the northeast which local conservationists say is ravaging forests inside Indawgyi’s wildlife sanctuary. The trade, which targets both larger hardwoods and smaller trees inside the sanctuary, is local. It feeds into a domestic market for timber and firewood. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) wood ( is the most commonly used fuel source in rural Myanmar – much of which remains off the electrical grid. Much of Myanmar’s timber is lost to international trade, mostly to India and China, and is worth $550 million a year according to recent World Bank figures ( But the problem at Indawgyi is a domestic one. “It’s an important part of the picture of what the drivers of deforestation are. Logging is not only for the international trade but for the domestic energy market,” said Frank Momberg, Myanmar country director at international conservation NGO Fauna & Flora International (FFI). Since 2010, FFI has been working at Indawgyi, collecting information on the biodiversity of the area as well as running

conservation programs. There are over a dozen Community Forestries (CFs) around Indawgyi that were set up by FFI. Through the CFs villagers monitor tracts of forestry resources beyond the sanctuary.

Recent destruction

Indawgyi Lake, located in a wide valley in Myanmar’s restive northeast been an isolated destination. Until recently it was accessible only by un A long simmering war there between the Kachin Independence Army (K largest ethnic armies ( and Burmese government forces has also kept visitors away.

A view of the Indawgyi Lake shore region. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

Indawgyi’s 284-square-mile wildlife sanctuary, officially designated in 2004, encompasses the entire lake, its wetlands, and large areas of evergreen and deciduous forests in the surrounding mountains. Logging of any kind is prohibited in its forests, which are rich in biodiversity, home to gaur, sun bear, rare birds and gibbon species. The sanctuary is currently under review to become a UNESCO biosphere reserve ( In February the lake was added (

myanmars-largest-lake-secured-thanks-to-newramsar-site-designation/) to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. But illicit logging, which has been going on in the wildlife sanctuary for several years, has been increasing recently. GIS imagery collected by FFI shows that logging there ramped up between 2015 and 2016, likely due to a pull-out of ethnic rebels in the immediate area. Aerial images from both years provided to Mongabay clearly show dozens of white specks on the mountains along the northwestern flank of the sanctuary in this year’s photo. The specks indicate areas of tree loss, according to Patrick Oswald, FFI’s GIS Specialist.

A view of a logging camp in the Indawgyi Lake region. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

A view of a logging camp in the Indawgyi Lake region. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

An on-the-ground investigation by FFI in April found several logging camps inside the sanctuary. The loggers were cutting teak and other varieties of tropical hardwood for firewood and timber using both trucks and elephants for transportation, Momberg says. They were operating in areas that were previously off-limits due to security risks related to KIA movements. However, with KIA troops retreating from the area, the vacuum was quickly filled by illegal logging operations.

Ongoing regional con ict

Skirmishes between the KIA and the Burmese army continue today but farther away from the lake. Still, there are some Burmese army checkpoints along the western side, landmines in the hills, and Kachin rebels are known to make incognito forays into the towns. They come to collect

supplies, get rest and appropriate, to the mahouts’ chagrin, the odd pack elephant or two, according to villagers interviewed by Mongabay. Locals stuck between the two armed groups seem to favor neither side. Most come from the Shan ethnic minority and it is a common belief that the sporadic fighting is mostly about money and access to profitable natural resources near Indawgyi and elsewhere in Kachin State. A local village elder from Lon Sant village, whose name has been withheld for his safety, says that it is an open secret that local officials were collecting money from the handful of Burmese businessmen who run the logging operations within the sanctuary.

A recent photo from the Indawgyi Lake region showing timber and logs in the forest. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

Members of the local community forestry association in Lon Sant who have visited logging camps and spoken with villagers living within the sanctuary say they have learned that one ton of hardwood from the sanctuary sells for about

$415. That is also the amount that officials charge per month for loggers to do business in the sanctuary.

Bribery allegations

The Forestry Department did not respond to Mongabay’s inquiries for comment about illegal activity in the area and reports of kickbacks to government officials. But in an investigation into illegal logging in the neighboring Saigaing region published by the Associated Press in September, FD National Director Myo Min responded to similar allega of logging-related corruption in this way: ( forest-cutting-continues-despite-government-efforts) “There are many individual bribery cases but not all staff from the forest department is involved.” While villagers claim that they are not aware of the identities of the logging bosses, they do report regularly seeing timber trucks pass through their villages from January to April when there is little rainfall. During those months trucks come and go all day, they say. “There’s not many big trees now,” a villager from nearby Ma Na Hkaw village says, whose identity has been withheld for his safety. However, while logging has caused serious degradation, good primary forest still remains on the steeper ridges providing critical habitat for endangered wildlife, says FFI’s Momberg. Before it became a wildlife sanctuary, Myanmar’s government-owned monopoly Myanmar Timber Enterprise logged the forests around Indawgyi. Only over the last few years have illegal loggers moved in.

Ongoing deforestation concerns

Myanmar has one of the worst rates of deforestation in the world. Between 1990 and 2015, nearly 15 million hectares of forest cover were lost ( , says the most recent report from UNFAO. Today there is an average eradication of 185,000 hectares of forest annually in Myanmar, according to a 2015 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (

A recent photo from the Indawgyi Lake region showing timber and wood piles in the forest. Photo courtesy of Fauna & Flora International

To curb deforestation, the new government that came to power democratically in March initiated a countrywide year-long ban ( logging for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The ban is set to end in early 2017. In the heavily

forested Bago Yoma mountain range in Myanmar’s northwest, the ban is set for a decade. Other efforts to cut back on logging are more localized. At Indawgyi, the government has provided free transformers and built power lines in several of the villages around the lake, including Lon Sant and Ma Na Hkaw, in part to lessen reliance on wood burning. But according to community CF leaders, the high costs of connecting households to the grid – around $230 to around $390 – have kept most villagers from the luxury. That means that for the foreseeable future local timber will remain the go-to fuel source. FFI and the Forest Department have also distributed firewood saving stoves and supported tree nurseries for local CF groups to provide alternative sources of firewood, but it will take several years even for fast growing firewood tree species to mature. In February this year, Myanmar’s Forest Department appointed new Widllife Sanctuary Warden Maung Win, who is committed to tackling forest crime, according to FFI. After FFI’s visit to the logging camps inside the wildlife sanctuary, Momberg took the photographs to high-up officials in the Forestry Department in both the state and national capitals. In response to FFI’s evidence Warden Win initiated an immediate crackdown, confiscating one sawmill and disabling another. It remains to

be seen whether officials will take efforts to prevent logging in the upcoming logging season at Indawgyi, which is fast approaching.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Sweden sets legal precedent with prosecution of Myanmar teak trader by Mike Gaworecki on 15 November 2016

Sweden’s forest agency, Skogsstyrelsen, prosecuted the trader, Almtra Nordic, under the EUTR after an investigation found that the company could not demonstrate who harvested its timber or where it was cut prior to the company purchasing it

from the state-operated Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE). The EUTR, which came into force in 2013, bans the sale of illegal or high-risk wood in EU markets and requires companies to perform the due diligence necessary to ensure their risk of importing illegally logged timber is negligible. A Swedish administrative court confirmed a previous ruling that MTE’s documentation did not provide adequate proof that a shipment of teak was produced legally because it failed to provide critical information about the logs’ origins, the logging company that harvested them, and whether or not the harvester was in compliance with Myanmar’s forest legislation.

A Swedish court upheld a ruling today that finds an importer of teak from Myanmar to be in violation of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) — setting a

legal precedent that conservationists hope will be followed across Europe. Sweden’s forest agency, Skogsstyrelsen, prosecuted the trader, Almtra Nordic, under the EUTR after an investigation found that the company could not demonstrate who harvested its timber or where it was cut prior to the company purchasing it from the state-operated Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE). The EUTR, which came into force in 2013, bans the sale of illegal or high-risk wood in EU markets and requires companies to perform the due diligence necessary to ensure their risk of importing illegally logged timber is negligible. The principle of due diligence has become a crucial part of efforts to tackle the illegal timber trade ( in key markets such as the EU, the U.S., and Australia. A Swedish administrative court confirmed a previous ruling that MTE’s documentation did not provide adequate proof that a shipment of teak was produced

legally because it failed to provide critical information about the logs’ origins, the logging company that harvested them, and whether or not the harvester was in compliance with Myanmar’s forest legislation. Almtra Nordic has reportedly been fined 17,000 Swedish kronor (about $1,700) and received an injunction that prevents the company from selling teak imported from Myanmar into the EU until it can identify and mitigate the risks of the timber having been harvest illegally. “The Swedish courts have agreed that documentation currently provided by MTE does not satisfy the requirements of the EUTR, setting a precedent which all EU member states should follow,” EIA Forest Campaigner Peter Cooper said in a statement. The EIA released a briefing ( earlier this month showing that mitigating risk of illegality when importing

teak from Myanmar is essentially impossible because the MTE is “unable or unwilling” to provide the information required by the EUTR. According to the EIA, the yachting industry is a major consumer of Burmese teak, as yacht owners and builders consider decks made from the wood to be a luxury item and status symbol. Following its investigation of teak from Myanmar sold in EU markets, the EIA filed legal complaints in five countries over EUTR violations by nine companies. “The ruling means no Burmese teak can be legally placed on the EU market until the Myanmar Timber Enterprise addresses illegality and transparency within the supply chain,” Cooper said. “EIA now expects to see EUTR rulings equivalent to that imposed in Sweden in all nine cases we have submitted. This is a key test of Europe’s resolve to enforce a

piece of environmental legislation central to EU forests and climate policy.” The Swedish case against Almtra Nordic represents the first instance of a court determining that the documents supplied by MTE are not enough to prove legality, and the ruling is likely to be used as guidance by other courts in the EU responsible for judging whether European companies have complied with the EUTR, according to Jade Saunders, a policy analyst with Washington, D.C.-based NGO Forest Trends who works with law enforcement officials in Europe and the US. “Cases involving Myanmar teak are already being investigated by authorities in other European countries, and we expect to see similar conclusions,” Saunders said. The government of Myanmar adopted a nationwide logging moratorium in August in acknowledgement of the damage already done to its forests by

decades of over-harvesting. While a temporary pause provides breathing space for Myanmar’s forests, Forest Trends notes that the moratorium is set to expire in March 2017 for most of the country’s forests, and such timebound logging bans rarely result in meaningful change on the ground. Forest Trends argues that logging should only be allowed to resume after Myanmar’s forests have sufficiently recovered and the relevant government bodies have adopted systems that can ensure verifiable, legal, and sustainable forest management. Barber Cho, Secretary of the Myanmar Forest Certification Committee (MFCC), a government-linked body, said that those systems are already being created. According to Forest Trends, Cho said that the MFCC is currently developing a system to demonstrate that Myanmar’s timber exports are legal.

“The MTE is working on improving data systems so that information on traceability becomes more readily accessible,” Cho said. “After Myanmar’s current logging moratorium, all timber extraction will be the sole responsibility of MTE, so there will no longer be any question over who has the right to harvest. In the meantime, MFCC, with the support of [the UN’s Food & Agricultural Organization] and the EU, is working on improving current verification systems with the aim of providing clearer evidence that our timber exports are legal.” As the Swedish court case shows, it’s imperative that Myanmar reforms its forestry practices to include supply chain transparency if the country wants to continue to have access to European wood markets, which were valued at close to €50 million between 2012 and 2015, Forest Trends said. Without such reforms, the EU might not be the only markets Myanmar teak is excluded from.

“This ruling makes explicit that European companies must document their full supply chain back to area of harvest in order to assess and mitigate risk,” Forest Trends’ Saunders told Mongabay. “Today we are focusing on Europe but the court decision is also likely to impact on US imports from Myanmar by raising the bar for expectations of Due Care under the Lacey Act. Where timber source countries have not yet established robust transparent national systems, an expectation of third party audit must become the new global norm for responsible timber buyers.”

Log yard in Myanmar. Photo © EIA.

Article published by Mike Gaworecki

Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Myanmar’s forests face myriad problems as logging ban continues by Jennifer Rigby on 29 September 2016

Between 1990 and 2015 Myanmar lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. Approximately 527 mainly UN-led forest user groups manage around 40,000 hectares of incountry forest.

Illicit cross-border trade of illegal timber continues despite the logging ban set to expire in April 2017.

YANGON – Myanmar’s forests are rich. They are rich in variety, in natural resources, and in wildlife. But they are also rich in danger. “Myanmar’s forests are more in crisis than ever before,” said Faith Doherty, lead forest campaigner at the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “If you just look at what’s happened in the last five years, natural resources are one of the biggest issues this country is facing.” The crisis is not new. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which tracks forest cover globally, in 2010 Myanmar had the thirdhighest rate of forest reduction in the world. Only Brazil and Indonesia rank higher. Between 1990 and 2015, the country lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. Since 2010, half a

million hectares of forest has been lost every year, or an area about the size of Brunei. In total, there are 29 million hectares of forest still standing in the country, and the FAO suggests that this means that just under half of Myanmar is still covered in forest (43 percent) and wooded land (23 percent). In particular, there are large, globally significant expanses of forest in Tanintharyi, in the south of the country, and in Kachin, Shan and Sagaing divisions in the north, but as FAO puts it: “Time is running out as deforestation continues at a rapid pace.”

Map of Myanmar. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

For Myanmar, losing its forests would spell catastrophe on several different levels, from exacerbating the effects of climate change – already a huge threat, which only promises to worsen – to the loss of habitat for animals and livelihood for humans. Around 70 percent of Myanmar’s rural population, around 30 million people, rely on the forests

for their basic needs in some way, and wood is the most common rural fuel source. Saw Htun, deputy country director at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Myanmar, said protecting the forests is critical. “Myanmar is one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on earth, from the Himalayas to the tropical rainforest down south,” he said. “For the long-term existence of human beings on this planet, and to maintain a functional, healthy ecosystem, we must protect our forests.” But the threats to the forests in Myanmar are manifold, from excessive logging both legal and illegal, to clearance for agriculture or other development.

Pianma town the main entry point for logs from Myanmar into Nujiang Prefecture Yunnan. Photo courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency

In fact, the threats are so serious that even the government is listening. It put in place a oneyear logging ban this summer, which will be lifted in April 2017. Myanmar’s previous militarybacked government put in place the first real attempt to address the issues with logging with a ban on timber exports in 2014. Yet as EIA’s Doherty explains, there are various complications.

“What we have here is increased pressure on the forests in that they are being commercially used for so many different reasons,” said Doherty. “Rampant illegal logging still exists, we still have China’s ferocious appetite for teak and hardwoods from Myanmar, and then all of these countries that want to dig in the ground.” This means that it is not just this generation of trees under threat. “There’s timber extraction but once the timber is gone, there’s mineral extraction, then there are other driving forces, such as forest conversion for plantations,” said Doherty. “So the forests are really in crisis. It’s not a positive message, but it’s the truth.” Precious wood and conflict Back in the 1850s, when Myanmar (then Burma) was part of the British Empire, a robust forest management system was put in place. And while the profits from Burma’s bounteous teak and hardwood supplies went to British

coffers and not Burmese, the system did at least seem to protect the future of the source of those profits: the trees. However, after independence in 1948 and a slide into decades of isolation under a brutal military junta, the same could no longer be said of the system. Instead, “Burma’s rich forest resources have lined crony pockets for decades,” as it was bluntly described in a 2014 British government report. Things have improved for Myanmar’s citizens since the junta handed over power to a military-backed government in 2011, a moment which marked the start of the country’s journey towards diplomacy and a re-entry onto the world stage. But it has not been quite the same story for the forests. State ownership and corruption All forests, whether they are classed as reserved forests, protected public forests, or unclassed, are owned by the state

of Myanmar and overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. Logging is run by a governmentowned monopoly, Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE). More than one EU-backed report has shown that the system remains wide open for corruption, involving either companies with ties to the same cronies as in the junta-era, the Burmese military, or ethnic armies. Yet that isn’t the biggest problem. Myanmar’s timber trade is massive, with demand from China and India leading the way, followed by markets including the EU and US, which have some trade restrictions in place. In total, the wood trade is officially worth $550 million a year, according to the World Bank’s most recent figures ( However, experts suggest that figure makes up only around one quarter of the actual total, because 75 percent of timber exports from Myanmar are not official, and in fact they are actually illegal.

Some illegal trade takes place in areas outside the control of the government, where ethnic conflicts are still under way. Indeed, many of these ethnic conflicts are actually linked to who has ownership rights over natural resources like forests.

Log trucks in Kachin waiting to cross into China in April 2015. Photo courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency

It is a particularly serious problem in Kachin State, which borders the Chinese province of Yunnan. China is the world’s biggest illegal wood importer. Trade in timber products, mainly logs, between Myanmar and China reached record levels in 2013, according to the findings of an EIA investigation. Of that

trade, 94 percent came through the customs office in Yunnan, meaning it was transported overland across the border with Kachin State in contravention of Myanmar’s forest laws and China’s official policy changes. Glimmers of hope But amid all of this grim data, there are signs of hope for Myanmar’s forests. In 2015, the country held its first democratic election for decades, bringing human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to power. In the summer of 2016, the new government put a one-year countrywide logging ban in place, and a 10-year ban in the densely-forested Pegu Yoma region, building on the previous administration’s ban on raw timber exports, established in 2014 ( Experts cautiously welcomed the ban, which was later scheduled to be lifted in April 2017.

“Myanmar’s timber trade has been fraught with problems for decades, including contributing to the armed conflict in ethnic minority territories,” said Kerstin Canby, director of Forest Trends’ Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program. “Reform is critically needed to make the sector environmentally and economically sustainable, as well as socially equitable, and to ensure that it contributes to peace rather than war.” Canby added that the pause in official logging could represent a chance to put stronger, more effective policies in place. “This moratorium could represent a good stopgap measure, if it is used to allow time for the national government to make necessary institutional reforms.” However, she said more work needs to be done, particularly on illegal logging, to really ensure that Myanmar moves toward a better future for its forests. It’s not just about a ban, but better governance, the inclusion of all

stakeholders, and tackling the problem at its source: the demand from trading partners. “In order to be a step toward meaningful change, the moratorium must be tied to key reforms in the sector that must be implemented before the resumption of logging,” said Canby. There are other positive steps being taken in Myanmar, including high-level discussions over a new forest law to replace the old version, and even the reform of the logging company, the MTE. Its director Saw John Shwe Ba told Mongabay this was welcome. “Just like neighboring countries, the logging ban is a good thing to reduce the dependency on natural forests and to get a chance for reforming as well, I think,” he said. Global help The international community and trading partners are working with Myanmar too. Illegal trade with China has dropped from its 2013

peak, when 1.7 million cubic meters of timber products worth $621 million were imported by China from Myanmar. As aforementioned, an EIA investigation has shown that 94 percent of this 2013 trading was likely to have been illegal. The European Union began a project in 2014 to prepare Burmese civil society to engage in the development of a Forest Law Enforcement Governance Trade (FLEGT) process for Myanmar. The FLEGT process could represent the first steps toward a system which could mean full European trade with Myanmar’s logging industry. Community forestry initiatives are also being tested, with around 527 mainly UN-led forest user groups managing around 40,000 hectares of forest at the latest count, and the UN’s REDD+ program, which Myanmar joined in 2011, also under way. Representatives are advocating at the ministerial level to try to implement change, as well as

leading capacity-building training on sustainability forestry management and effective management tools, including the use of satellite imagery. In April, the UN reiterated its commitment to Myanmar’s forest sector, describing collaboration between Myanmar and the UN as something that “represents hope for the future.” Civil society Activists remain watchful. For Burmese environmentalists, it’s not a moment too soon. Devi Thant Cin runs the Myanmar Green Network and believes now is the moment to save Myanmar’s forests – and its future. “The cronies cut down our forests. The government gave them permission, and all the money is now in their pockets,” she said. “Think of parts of Myanmar – the mountains are gone, the trees are gone, the rivers are damaged. It is all poisoned. Every season now we have flooding.”

“It all depends on the new government. We must cure this now.” Photo: Truck carrying logs across Myanmar’s river border with Zizhi Yunnan, China, in 2012. Photo courtesy of Environmental Investigation Agency Sources:

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Deforestation puts lives on the line in rural Myanmar by David Doyle, Jennifer Rigby on 12 September 2016

Myanmar is home to almost 5,000 captive elephants, many who work alongside humans in the logging industry. A 2015 forestry assessment done by the UN found Myanmar had the third highest rate of annual forest reduction in the world. Lost habitat and a ban have left elephants with less habitat and

less work.


n a still, heavy afternoon in September, with monsoon clouds massing lazily in the sky, the threat of the elephants seems far away. But U Sein Than, a 50year-old rice farmer living in remote Taik Kyi village in Myanmar, says there is one nearby. He will not take us near in case it charges. “When the elephants come, I light a fire and order the children into the tree houses,” says Than. “If you go near them, they chase you. We know when they are coming because we can hear them.” Instead, we walk in the footsteps of the elephants across leechinfested paddy fields. He points out a tree where he says an elephant gouged a hole in the wood with its tusk.

A hole in a tree villagers say was made by an elephant. Courtesy of David Doyle

Ten minutes later, we reach another tree house. It is deserted, tattered sheets hanging loose from the beams. “This was my brother-in-law’s, but he abandoned it. He got too scared,” Than says, indicating at least a dozen elephant footprints clustered around the base of the tree, and a smooth patch of bark high up, where he says the elephant scratched itself. In this village in the Burmese jungle just 45 miles from Yangon, elephant and man are at loggerheads.

Mysterious origins

The villagers aren’t sure why the elephants started coming to their village – perhaps logging destroyed their habitat, perhaps flooding from a dam – but they do know the consequences: 40 human deaths in the last eight years, according to village leader, U Sai Than Hlaing, 45. “The elephants lost their habitats, so they come down to the village,” Hlaing says. “At first they only came for sugar cane, but then the elephants learned to eat human food.” U Sein Than knows all about that. He describes his farming business as a “lottery” because of the elephants. “If three come, they destroy two acres of rice paddy. If I cultivate 100 percent of the rice, I only get 30 percent of it because of the elephants.”

U Sein Than perches in a tree house built as a refuge from elephants. Courtesy of David Doyle

The farmers can’t protect their crops, but they can protect their families. Hence, the tree houses. But Than’s brother-in-law isn’t the only one to have given up and relocated. Two other villages nearby have been abandoned because of the elephants. “But I am not going,” says Than. “I have no other option. We have lived here for generations. If I left, it would only be to go and live in the jungle.” He doesn’t blame the animals, though.

“I just don’t want the elephants to come here anymore,” he says. “I want the government to help the elephants. I want them to find them somewhere to live.” This loss of a place to live – not just for elephants, but for many other animals and plant species – is a huge issue in Myanmar. A 2015 forestry assessment ( done by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that the country had the third highest rate of annual forest reduction in the world. In the years between 1990 and 2015, Myanmar lost almost a staggering 15 million hectares of forests and other wooded lands.

Logging ban

There was a glimmer of hope this summer when Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratic government set about banning logging ( for the next fiscal year (although detail is still scant, and illegal logging remains a major problem in Myanmar).

It is currently unclear what will happen when the year-long ban – which builds on the previous administration’s raw timber export ban – ends, but conservation groups have welcomed it. “If the logging doesn’t stop, everything is going to go,” says Dr. Amirtharaj Christy Williams, Myanmar country director for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “It’s important to have a ban and really think about how to do this in the future.” But there’s a snag. While the ban sounds like it is good news for wild elephants in Myanmar, and maybe even for villagers like U Sein Than too (if, for example, elephants can move back into newly quiet forests), it’s not quite as simple as that.

A battered tree house that villagers say was abandoned because it was attacked by elephants. Courtesy of David Doyle

Simon Hedges, elephant coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, explains. “One of the challenges unique to Myanmar is the very large number of captive elephants relative to the wild population,” he says. “And they are obviously now underemployed – if not unemployed – because of the logging ban. And the big question is what to do with lots of those elephants.”

The loggingelephant bond

If Hedges doesn’t pose the million dollar question, it’s certainly the 5,000 pachyderm question. That is the rough number of captive elephants in Myanmar, according to the WWF. Wild elephant numbers are much lower: estimates range between 1,000 up to 3,000. Of those 5,000 captive elephants, 2,500 work in the logging industry for state-owned logging company, Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE). Strong, clever elephants have worked in logging hand in trunk with their mahouts, the men who train, work with and look after them, for more than 100 years. Ideally, the MTE elephants work until they are 55 and are then pensioned off to nearby forest areas with their mahouts for their twilight years. Things are a bit more complicated now. It’s been widely reported that the previous government’s export ban means there are already high numbers of unemployed elephants.

Villager U Sein Than peers out from the thick foliage of his tree house. Courtesy of David Doyle

And there are no real answers yet about what the elephants are doing while the logging industry has temporarily downed tools for the ban. Elephants in the wild feed for nearly 18-20 hours a day, and as the WWF’s Dr. Williams says: “How are 2,500 elephants going to be fed if they are not working?” But the real risk is what happens if the temporary ban becomes permanent. While MTE and the government can cope with a few retired elephants, or even a lot of temporarily unemployed

elephants, 2,500 or more longterm out-of-work beasts is a different matter. Luckily, that’s exactly what Hedges, the Myanmar government, and a number of other conservation charities, including the WWF, are working on. By the beginning of next year, they hope to have completed the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan (MECAP), a 10-year strategy for how to save Myanmar’s elephants. The strategy includes an in-depth look at protecting wild elephants and their habitat, combating the trade in elephants and elephant parts, and preventing human and elephant conflict, but also focuses on what can be done with the vast numbers of elephants currently headed towards the elephant-equivalent of the dole queue if the logging ban takes hold. “There are options – some animal rights organisations are keen on retirement homes, areas

of forest set aside for elephants to be released into and looked after. Or there’s eco-tourism, or law enforcement,” says Hedges. In fact, MTE is already running eight elephant response teams helping to tackle human/elephant conflict by driving the wild creatures away from human habitations. There’s a good ecotourism example too, in a sector with a lot of bad examples. Myanmar’s much-lauded Green Hill Valley eco-tourism camp in Shan State currently houses four retired elephants and one baby. But what really excites conservationists is the chance to send them back into the wild.

A tree house in a remote village in Myanmar built for safety from elephants. Courtesy of

David Doyle

“If Myanmar gets its act together, and does a properly managed reintroduction into the wild with captive stock, it’s possible that we can re-wild a large part of Myanmar’s forests,” says the WWF’s Williams. The reason this could be possible in Myanmar goes back to the elephants’ working conditions. MTE elephants are released back into the forest each night after their work is finished, unlike working elephants in, for example, Indonesia. “Unlike elsewhere, lots of captive elephants here have spent their lives in the forest, with the freedom to interact with wild elephants, interbreed, eat a wild elephant diet. So challenges which come up elsewhere, like introducing disease, don’t come up,” says Hedges.

A million elephants

There are still issues: the elephants may be too reliant on, or too comfortable with, humans, leading to a higher risk of human/elephant conflict. A bigger problem in Myanmar is a lack of resources to manage huge experimental programs like this. “Whatever happens, it will require significant help from international groups, to identify the areas, to fund the plan,” admits Williams. But, he says, the stakes could not be higher. “The action plan needs the government to implement it – if we don’t do that, we might end up going the Laos route in Myanmar,” he says. “The historic name of Laos is Lane Xang, meaning land of a million elephants – but now there are barely hundreds left. To prevent that from happening here we have to take this seriously.”

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Global Forest Reporting Network, Global Forests

No logging ban for Myanmar despite reported announcement by Morgan Erickson-Davis on 9 May 2016

A couple weeks ago, news outlets reported an environmental ministry official announced a complete ban on hardwood logging in Myanmar. However, a more senior official later rejected the announcement. Myanmar has been a hotbed of illegal logging for years, with hundreds of millions of dollars of timber sold annually to China and elsewhere despite a 2014 timber export ban. Conservation NGO Environmental Investigation Agency has been examining Myanmar’s illegal logging trends for years, and says these logging ban rumors may actually be increasing deforestation as loggers rush to cut down trees before a ban is enacted.

Late last month, news reports heralded a new move by the Myanmar government that would ban the logging of all hardwood in the country. However, it now appears that the announcement was more wishful thinking than effected policy, leaving conservationists still clamoring for stronger protection of Myanmar’s shrinking forests. “We have been reducing timber extraction, and now we have decided to stop logging completely,” said U Saw John Shwe Ba, managing director at Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, as reported by Reuters ( on April 28. “This measure will cover teak and other hardwoods all across the country,” he added. But it seems like the announcement was not indicative of anything certain. The following week, Shwe Ba told the Myanmar Times ( he was “90 percent sure” the ban would be enacted. Later, the Times reported another senior official at the Ministry said logging had not been outlawed outright, and that additional restrictions were only an option at that point. “Firstly there is no logging ban,” said Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) Campaigner Faith Doherty. “It’s a statement made by an official but nothing has gone through the legislature or the Ministry. The rumour is that the ban will be addressed for teak only – not other hardwoods.”

Pockmarks remain where forest has been felled near Myanmar’s border with China’s western state of Yunnan. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Despite a 2014 ban on timber exports out of the country, illegal logging is still a big problem in Myanmar. A 2015 report ( by the EIA found the Southeast Asian nation still harbored one of the largest illegal timber markets in the world, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. A big driver of Myanmar’s illegal logging has been China’s demand for rosewood. Also called “hongmu,” rosewood is a particularly lucrative type of timber used to make furniture. Because of the heavy market for it, many rosewood tree species are highly threatened by targeted logging. The two most soughtafter species in Myanmar – tamalan (Dalbergia oliveri) and padauk (Pterocarpus macrcarpus) – stand to be logged into extinction over the course of just a few years, according to a 2014 EIA report (

However, not all news coming out of Myanmar’s logging sector looks bad for the country’s forests. Earlier this year, the EIA reported a downturn in crossborder timber smuggling between Myanmar and China. The report attributed it to China’s economic slowdown, as well as the country’s crackdown on illegal timber imports and Myanmar’s installment of Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counselor. The post is akin to Prime Minister and was created for Suu Kyi after she won the general presidential election in 2015 but was barred the role by a constitutional technicality. “Illegal logging is out of control in Myanmar, and on top of that there’s a great deal of legal timber extraction,” Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor at Australia’s James Cook University Australia, told Mongabay. “Nobel Laureate and national leader Aung San Suu Kyi deserves a huge amount of credit for cracking down on logging exports, most of which are going to China—whose appetite for timber seems insatiable.” Despite the recent drop in timber smuggling, deforestation in Myanmar has been scaling upward over the past decade. Data from the University of Maryland show the country’s tree cover loss reached a high in 2014 (the last year for which this kind of data is available), with more than a quarter-million hectares felled in one year alone – totaling an area larger than the

U.S. state of Delaware. Tree cover loss alerts indicate 2015 may have exceeded 2014. Illegal logging isn’t the only driver of Myanmar’s deforestation. Industr palm plantations are popping up in the country’s south as the industry ( finding palm oil coverage more than doubled in Tanintharyi District bet found rice fields are at fault for nearly 90 percent (https://news.monga enemies/) of Myanmar’s mangrove loss as the country aims to increase

Rice paddies have replaced mangrove forest in the southwest part of Myanmar (bottom inset). Above it, tree cover loss alerts cluster near one of the country’s last remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, which are particularly large, undisturbed areas of primary forest. This particular area shows a big uptick in recent deforestation, with more than 1,600 FORMA alerts detected from January through September, 2015. Only around 400 alerts were recorded in the region during the same time span in 2014.

When it comes to illegal logging, conservationists hope a total ban will lie somewhere in the near future. But in the meantime, they worry that faulty announcements like that purported by U Saw John Shwe Ba may worsen an already bad situation. “A moratorium on logging would be helpful but it should be a total moratorium,” Doherty told Mongabay. “Secondly, these rumours are currently driving excessive logging – especially for teak in anticipation of a ban there is currently illegal trade of timber including teak that is

being smuggled across the Myanmar – China border through Burmese controlled territory as well as the Kachin state where different ethnic armed groups are taxing trucks transporting the timber through their territory.” As for potential solutions, EIA recommends improving and expanding discourse to include everyone with a stake in the future of Myanmar’s forests. “The Government needs to have an approach where a multi stakeholder dialogue is used to find solutions to the current situation including ethnic and indigenous views,” Doherty said. “Myanmar has been working toward a possible Myanmar-EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement that would support such an approach.”

Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis

Mongabay Series: Endangered Environmentalists

Journalist murdered while investigating illegal logging in Myanmar by on 13 December 2016

A journalist was murdered while investigating illegal logging and timber smuggling in Myanmar. On Tuesday, Soe Moe Tun, a local reporter with Daily Eleven newspaper, was found “severely beaten” by the side of a highway

in the town of Monywa in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. Robbery doesn’t appear to be the motive for the killing.

A journalist was murdered while investigating illegal logging and timber smuggling in Myanmar, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists ( (CPJ). On Tuesday, Soe Moe Tun, a local reporter with Daily Eleven newspaper, was found “severely beaten” by the side of a highway in the town of Monywa in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. Soe Moe Tun, 35, had reported for the outlet since January 2015 according to a statement from Eleven Media Group ( According to press accounts, robbery doesn’t appear to be the motive for the killing: the reporter’s valuables were found at the crime scene. Authorities say no suspects have been identified.

Civil society groups quickly called for an investigation into Soe Moe Tun’s death. “We categorically condemn the murder of journalist Soe Moe Tun and call on Myanmar authorities to leave no stone unturned in identifying and prosecuting those responsible,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, in a statement. “A culture of impunity is taking deeper root in Myanmar. The government should break the cycle in media murders by achieving swift justice in this case.”

Soe Moe Tun / Facebook

“The investigation into Soe Moe Tun’s death should include the Forestry Department, which has more information regarding the actors and methods used to extract valuable hardwoods from Monywa,” Faith Doherty, Lead Forests Campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), wrote ( “An independent, transparent inquiry must take place into the possible role of Government officials.” According to Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), Soe Moe Tun isn’t the only journalist being targeted by timber traffickers. In a statement, the group said Tin Zaw Oo, a journalist based in Myanmar’s Mandalay region, had to go into hiding in the past two months following threats from timber traders. Header image: Soe Moe Tun / Facebook

Article published by Rhett Butler

In remote areas where illegal logging is most rampant, officials struggle with outreach to poor villagers about recently implemented laws that make most chainsaws illegal. Many times faster and more efficient than traditional handsaws and axes, chainsaws are also dangerous tools that can cause serious injury or death. Unregulated chainsaw use is nearly impossible for forestry officials to track or regulate, as most illegal logging is taking place in remote areas that are extremely difficult to reach.

ALAUNGDAW KATHAPA NATIONAL PARK, Myanmar – Pyar Aung still remembers the first time he saw a chainsaw. It was a German-made number being used by one of the logging companies operating in the forest around his remote village in Myanmar’s northwest Sagaing region in 2013. “It was so powerful and fast!” recalls 50 year-old Aung, who lives in the tiny village of Mahu. It wasn’t until August 2016 that he got one himself, and today he owns three. Each cost him around $124, though cheaper versions can be purchased in urban centers for about 7 times less. In spite of the

law, he said he was never asked to show paperwork to buy the chainsaws, nor were any of his fellow villagers. The claim is surprising given the fact that logging is practically a cottage industry in his community. Among 37 households they own 70 chainsaws. On a recent visit there, they also said they weren’t aware of the fairly new regulation implemented in 2016 that requires them to register their chainsaws with Myanmar’s Forestry Department. Remote locales like this are at the heart of a struggling government campaign to turn the tide on illegal chainsaw use and logging.

A villager from Mahu poses with his chainsaw in front of one other source of meager local income: a mat made of dry bamboo. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Mahu is a stark case in point of difficulties the Burmese government faces in educating disconnected rural populations about chainsaw ownership and use. The village is an isolated island of homes deep in the Patolon Forest Reserve, part of Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park ( in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. An ASEAN Heritage Park (

on-heritage-parks/), it is Myanmar’s largest national park, at 1,605 square kilometers (619 square miles). Despite almost non-existent knowledge of safety equipment, training, and protocols, chainsaws are gaining in popularity as the logging tool of choice in Myanmar’s rich forests. The country is the largest supplier of natural teak ( (Tectona grandis) in the world. Forestry officials say they began to see an uptick in imported chainsaws between 2013 and 2014. That increase, with numbers that are very difficult to track and verify, is likely in the hundreds to thousands per year. That’s bad news for Myanmar’s forests. A chainsaw can cut down a tree four times faster than the more traditional methods of an axe or a handsaw. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which tracks forest cover globally, notes that between 1990 and 2015, the country already lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. There’s no official data yet on whether a national logging ban ( in place from mid-2016 to April 2017 had an impact on forest loss. The geography of locales like Mahu — incredibly remote with limited options for income — contributes to illegal logging. It is completely cut off from the outside world for the 4-month rainy season due to bad roads. The national education system only arrived in the village five years ago, and there is still no electricity nor cell signal.

Villagers are motivated by basic economics to own chainsaws for logging to expedite their work. There’s also a demand. Brokers from nearby villages started to show up in Mahu in 2016 in search of wood for sale, around the time that the Burmese government instituted regulations for buying and owning a chainsaw.

Freshly cut trees, illegally logged, wait on the riverside wait to be transported from the forest to Mahu for sale. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Aung says that he can make about $95 per ton of logs. He typically collects 1.5 to 2 tons of wood per week to sell. If the rest of the village logs at a similar pace, they can cut down about 46 tons of wood every week, or over 180 tons per month. If they sell what they log at the rate Aung notes, the village can make at least $17,500 a month. A conservative estimate of annual village income from illegal logging — minus the rainy season — is about $140,000 annually.

For generations, villagers here have eked out an existence on meager profit from rice farming and other activities like selling handmade bamboo mats. Logging represents a chance to diversify and amplify income streams. “If we only grow rice, it’s not enough to make a living and that’s w started cutting trees, but we mostly only log teak,” Aung said. Tea the most valuable tropical hardwood species ( 256_Twe-Twe-Win.pdf) in the world. “The demand (for wood) is so

Regulations and enforcement

Villagers in Mahu might claim ignorance about their illegal chainsaws and logging activity, but their actions suggest otherwise. On a recent day in February, everyone stopped logging, disassembled their chainsaws, and hid the parts deep in the forest upon word of an impending Forestry Department inspection.

Altered to an inspection by the Forestry Department, villagers from Mahu take a chainsaw apart to hide parts in different locations in the forest. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Kyaw Minn Htut, founder of Thuriya Sandra Environmental Watch Group, has kept track of Mahu’s chainsaws, which he confirms aren’t registered and were not purchased legally. He has a complex relationship with the villagers. “It was me who reported this village to the forestry department,” Htut said while sitting with residents at their monastery, which also functions as a community hall. “But I asked the forestry department officers to forgive them, because they have no money to be fined and if you take away their chainsaw, they will have no way of surviving.” Htut is a native of Sagaing state in his early 40s, and has been doing conservation work in Sagaing region since 2003. He is incredibly persistent when it comes to finding and reporting illegal logging. He once spent 10 days in the forest counting unmarked stumps in an area that had been logged and found that the company (whose name he didn’t disclose) had logged 572 extra trees. “Four MTE [Myanma Timber Enterprise] officers and three FD [Forestry Department] officers were fired because of my report,” he claims. Htut’s philosophy is that deforestation is not caused

by individual loggers, but by logging companies approved by the MTE, which regulates the industry domestically. “Chainsaws are not the problem, the root of the problem is the policy and the law,” Htut said. “The current one is set up for organizations that are involved in mass production, but not for the people.” When it comes to the activity in Mahu, he wants to help them to legitimately earn income from logging. With his assistance, the villagers have applied to manage the forest surrounding their village, but have not heard back from the forestry department. It’s unlikely they ever will. It’s also just as unlikely that they will stop cutting down trees. “The villagers here at Mahu only cut what they need to survive, they don’t do it to get rich,” Htut said. “Besides what will the villagers feel, if the people not related to this area come and harvest all the valuable wood, but they themselves can’t even do that?” In Mandalay, the nearest urban center for the timber market and commercial goods, people are a bit more savvy about the rules for selling and owning a chainsaw. Along Mandalay’s so-called “iron street” of machinery and tool shops, out of a randomly selected seven shops along a 40-block

stretch, only one displayed chainsaws. Others wouldn’t even discuss a sale without proper paperwork. Fears of plainclothes police officers pretending to be customers are top of mind.

A vendor shows a chainsaw hidden behind other commercial products in a hardware shop in Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Many other shops take a more subdued approach. Some put the chainsaw blades in the corner, but the rest of the equipment stays hidden in back storage rooms and are only presented on request. “There is a crackdown on chainsaws,” said Ko Ko Win, who manages one such machinery shop. “If you want to sell chainsaws, you need a license, if you want to buy a chainsaw, you also need a license from the forestry department.” Win adds that a obtaining a license to buy a chainsaw involves answering a list of questions such as reasons for the

purchase, which trees will be cut down, and the locations where the tool will be used. “It’s a very complicated procedure, I don’t understand the reason behind all this madness,” he said. “But I guess it’s the new government, and it comes with new rules.” The country held its first democratic election in decades in 2015 and brought human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, to power. In June 2016 Myanmar’s Forestry Department amended its forestry laws include a policy ( on chainsaw registration: Whoever uses a chainsaw without permission can be sued, face up to two years in prison, and/or a fine of up to $15. They also created a committee with police officers, local and regional forestry department officers, and township administrators to enforce chainsaw rules and regulations. That includes monthly reports from forestry departments in each township, district, division and state to headquarters in Naypyidaw. Combating the myriad aspects of illegal logging in Myanmar is already a huge job for authorities. Just as the national ban lifted in mid-April, officials announced ( that in the past year they seized 55,000 tons of illegal timber and 2,600 vehicles

and pieces of machinery. Arrests of timber smugglers included 11 foreigners and 8,310 Burmese nationals.

Import headaches

Myanmar is still in the early stages of regulating chainsaws, especially when it comes to import rules. Officer Phyo Zin Mon Naing is assistant director of Myanmar’s Forestry Department at Naypyidaw and oversees chainsaw registration. He said in an interview that he’s been working on issues regarding chainsaw registration since 2013, but prior to that there were simply no laws or regulations for chainsaws. In 2014, the government started to ask chainsaw users to register equipment, but the system was inefficient and difficult to enforce. The current procedure, which includes import laws, was put into place after discussion with various departments and the central government.

A villager from Mahu cuts down a tree using a midsize chainsaw. A chainsaw can cut down a tree four times faster than an axe and handsaw. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

The complex procedure requires importers to submit an inquiry for a permit to import chainsaws and present their import license and company registration to the Ministry of Commerce. The Ministry of Commerce then submits it to the forestry department for a recommendation letter. In order to issue a recommendation letter, the forestry department has to first check the chainsaw type, country of origin, import method, the number of chainsaws in the current stock, a list of chainsaw distributors by the company and other detailed information. The importer isn’t technically allowed to sell their chainsaws if they don’t agree to monthly reports on their distribution and stock. Naing believes that this system, which targets importers, distributors, and users of

chainsaws, is feasible. For example, they once received an application from a machinery shop that wanted to import 20,000 chainsaws. The request was rejected. “Currently, there are a total of 1,281 legal chainsaws in the country,” Naing said from the most recently available chart in January 2017. “Sagaing has the most registered chainsaw at 423 units, the second is Mon State with 178 units.” The numbers clearly aren’t exact, though. For example, the number of known chainsaws in the Sagaing region alone would be 16 percent higher if the units in Mahu village were registered. Yet despite known pockets of lawlessness like Mahu, Naing is confident. “Now we have control over chainsaws in this country,” he said, adding that between 2014 to the end of 2016, they seized a total of 746 illegal chainsaws. Most of those come from individuals owners and are handed over to the MTE.

Problems with enforcement

A major problem with monitoring illegal chainsaws is lack of control in insurgency areas, especially Kachin state in Northern Myanmar. Kachin shares

a long border with China and is largely controlled by Kachin Independence organization (KIO) and its armed group Kachin Independent Army (KIA). They have an estimated 8,000 troops and are believed to be involved in illegal logging. “We believe they have a large logging problem, but we don’t have details,” Naing said, adding that they have no communication regarding chainsaw registry with members of KIO. “But we work with the Myanmar military to seize illegal timber in those areas.” They face myriad challenges, some of which could be life and death. “This work is difficult and very dangerous, officers at the forestry department don’t have guns, we have no security, how do we protect ourselves?” said Naing. “We just have our pen.” In fact, Naing doesn’t think there is a clear connection between seized timber and registered chainsaws, especially since the registry is so new. The forestry department is also still in the process of getting its staff and other government agencies up to speed on the registry’s use. If it proves effective, it could have an impact. “If we control chainsaws, it will reduce illegal logging in the future,” Naing said. He added

that one way they are doing this is through outreach programs, which include group information sessions on how to register chainsaws and the impact to the environment from illegal logging. In January 2017, he said they held 286 chainsaw registry outreach sessions across the country. Despite complaints over the complicated procedure to obtain a chainsaw, Naing sees the approach as standard. “If you import a car from a foreign country you have to submit paperwork, so importing chainsaws should be treated the same way,” he said. He added that he thinks the forest coverage rate is directly related to number of chainsaws. “There are so few officers at the forestry department but so many loggers in Myanmar, how do we control the situation?” he asked. “We must do it, we must register the chainsaws.”

A hopeful future, at a cost

In Mahu, logging is slowly transforming the lives of the villagers, although not everyone can yet afford to purchase a chainsaw. Khin Mg Htwe is 32 years old, tan and lean from years of rice farming before he turned to working as a timber porter.

“I don’t know how to operate a chainsaw, and I can’t afford one yet, but I’m happy they are cutting wood so I can make some income by transporting the timber out of our village,” Htwe said.

Transporting logs with cows that are usually for farming near Mahu. The porter can usually earn almost $4 per pair haul with a pair of cows. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

The 4-hour round trip by foot to the nearest village involves tying the timber to his two cows and a two-day rest after each trip. He makes a mere $4 each time. Thar Kyi is a 32-year-old father of four, and is recognized as a chainsaw expert by other villagers, who joke that he cuts the straightest line with chainsaws. Like Htwe, Kyi doesn’t own a chainsaw and is hired by chainsaw owners for $4 per day to operate their machinery. He said that part of his motivation is based on family obligations. “I have to pay $5 for my kids [per child] to go to school per month,” Kyi said. Though primary

education is free in Myanmar, teachers often ask for extra money in rural areas to offset the cost of uniforms and books.

A villager from Mahu poses with his chainsaw in front of one other source of meager local income: a mat made of dry bamboo. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

Even though activist Htut is devoted to conservation and to preventing illegal logging, he is sympathetic to the villagers. “I will never ask them to stop logging, because I have no other money-making options to offer them yet,” Htut said. “Before they used to focus more on cultivating rice, now they spend more time

on logging and they have to buy rice to eat during the rainy season.” He doesn’t believe that stricter enforcement of chainsaw regulations will stop the loggers. “They will just go back to using axes and handsaws, the illegal logging will continue and so will the bribery to related governmental officials,” he said. Banner image: A villager from Mahu cuts down a tree using a midsize chainsaw. A chainsaw can cut down a tree four times faster than an axe and handsaw. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay. Ann Wang is a foreign correspondent and photojournalist based in Myanmar. You can find her on Instagram at AnnWang077 ( FEEDBACK: Use this form ( to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

Mongabay Series: Almost Famous Animals

The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey: discovered and immediately endangered by Sean Mowbray on 4 October 2016

Discovered in 2010 and promptly listed as Critically Endangered, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey lives only in the remote high forests of Northeast Myanmar, and across the border in China’s Gaoligong Mountain Natural

Reserve. There are as few as 260330 left in the wild. Hunting, illegal logging and proposed hydropower development, taking place within the context of a simmering civil conflict, threaten to push the species to extinction. On the plus side, conservationists have already gone a long way toward winning over local communities, getting them to stop hunting the animals; while the government’s approval of a newly proposed national park offers hope that the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey can be preserved.

Though discovered by scientists in 2010, researchers have yet to get a clear image of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey due to its inaccessible high mountain habitat. Photo courtesy of FFI, BANCA & PRC


ack in 2010, scientists discovered a new primate species with a distinct and unusual aversion to rain. Tipped off by hunters’ stories, they found the Myanmar snubnosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri) in the country’s remote northeastern state of Kachin, near the border with China. A small flood of scholarly and popular articles followed, highlighting the quirkiness of the new primate that locals say covers its face whenever there is a downpour, lest it sneeze as the water trickles into its upturned nose and reveal its position. But what happens to a new species once discovered, after the media spotlight moves on — particularly when that species is immediately listed as Critically Endangered ( by the IUCN?

Rain, a monkey’s bane and maybe, a friend? Though known to locals, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey’s story begins for conservationists, primate scientists and the outside world a mere six years ago. R. strykeri was found as the inadvertent result of a survey on Hoolick gibbons. Hunters interviewed told of a bizarre species that sneezed during the rainy season, a tell tale sound that guides their guns to the quarry. The research team was intrigued: it seemed likely this was a species previously unknown to science, and indeed it was. The researchers were guided to a skull and skin of the unknown monkey in a hunter’s lodge (the skin had been made into a pouch). Soon after, they were presented with a carcass. That was enough to confirm their suspicions and hopes. The discovery made headlines ( — as it’s not every day a new primate is uncovered in today’s world.

In 2012, a camera trap caught the first image of a Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Photo courtesy of FFI/Banca/PRCF

Unfortunately for R. strykeri, the footprint of human encroachment had already trod heavily upon the species. Isolated in a remote and mountainous part of Myanmar, this new type of Snub-nosed monkey had no sooner been “discovered” than it was listed as Critically Endangered: the researchers estimated that only around 260-330 individuals remained in the wild. Loss of habitat (largely due to mechanized, often illegal logging) and hunting had presumably diminished the population

significantly. As part of the genus Rhinopithecus, the Myanmar species joined the other Snubnosed monkeys, the Tonkin, Golden, Grey and Black, on the IUCN’s list of endangered species. These five species, distributed between China and the northern reaches of Myanmar and Vietnam, number around 30,000 in the wild. The newly identified species again made headlines in 2012. Scientists working in China discovered a sub-population ( in the Gaoligong Mountain Natural Reserve, near the Myanmar border. The population there numbered less than one hundred. Two years later came another first; footage of the species was released showing a troop of monkeys leaping through forest canopy. Mongabay recently caught up with the researchers studying the “sneezing monkey” to find out what has been happening since

its scientific discovery made the headlines, and to see how the species is fairing in the wild. Between a dam and a hard place Bluntly put, the Myanmar snubnosed monkey’s narrow boundaries of evolutionary development stand between it and its hopes for survival. It’s remaining high altitude cool temperate rain forest and mixed temperate forest habitat is sandwiched between two large rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Salween, so the species’ home is surrounded by prime hydropower potential. And with dam construction there almost always comes ancillary development, deforestation and human access to once wild places. There is some good news for R. strykeri. The proposed Myitsone dam project, which consists of seven dams spanning the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River and several other tributaries, in Myanmar has been on hold since September 2011. Despite assurances from the

China Power Investment Corporation, the firm leading the venture, the project has proven extremely controversial. The main dam on the Irrawaddy River would, say critics, cause major flooding of the forest environment and agricultural land. While this would not directly impact the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey’s high altitude conifer habitat (known to include silver fir forest that occurs at elevations of 2,745-3,660 meters; 9,00012,000 feet), the construction of dam access roads would likely expose the monkey’s habitat to more deforestation and hunting pressures. As reported in The Irrawaddy (, a proposed series of dams on the Ngaw Chan Kha (a tributary of the N’Mai Hka River) would flood the houses and farms of some 30,000 people. Momberg worries that the loss of traditional terrace farming there may drive local people farther into the hills to make a living, encroaching on the

Myanmar Snub-nosed monkey’s range. “If people lose their rice terraces, they will have no alternative than to return to shifting cultivation,” he said. Similarly, mechanized logging for precious woods — a problem which has long plagued Myanmar —has come to the region. Between 1990 and 2015, the country lost an estimated 15 million hectares ( (approximately 58,000 square miles) of forest cover, placing it behind only Brazil and Indonesia in terms of its rate of deforestation in 2010. In 2014, the country enacted a ban on exports of timber to curb the cutting, a prohibition that was reinforced early this year. While the situation has improved somewhat in Myanmar, the country’s Environmental Investigative Agency ( reported last year that an illicit logging trade still thrives just across the Chinese border. Logging and hunting pressures Unfortunately for endangered species like the snub-nosed monkey, hydropower, logging and

hunting all go hand in hand to synergistically worsen threats. The building of dams requires the opening up of formerly remote forests to roads and transmission lines. Loggers use those dam access routes to transport logs, while also penetrating even more remote areas with rough haul roads. And all those new roads make it easy to get to places that were previously inaccessible to all but the most avid hunters.

Myanmar snub-nosed monkey habitat in Kachin state. Logging, hydropower development and hunting threaten the species’ chances of survival. Photo by: Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora International

And unfortunately for R. strykeri, it is quite easy to hunt. Its peculiar sneezing habit during rain storms makes it an audible

target. Scientists’ interviews with hunters revealed that at least 13 Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys were hunted and killed during 2009, according to the IUCN. If this figure is extrapolated over three-generation spans (each lasting at least 18 years), the rate of loss would be 234 monkeys, or 90 percent of the conservatively estimated current total population of 260 individuals. The good news: local community awareness and a new conservation ethos, born out of the educational efforts of Flora and Fauna International (FFI), has reduced the direct targeting of the Snub-nosed monkey since its scientific discovery. Yet the animal is still accidentally falling victim to hunters. Ngwe Lwin, a conservationist and part of the team that discovered the species, explained that hunters who live off the forest often set traps meant for bears or other large mammals (bear gall bladders and skins can fetch high prices in Chinese markets).

“Basically the [Snub-nosed monkey] is not the target for hunters because there is not a big market for them in the border area. Normally they cannot sell them.” He said. There are reports of the monkeys’ parts, such as the skull, skin and bones, appearing on Chinese wildlife markets, presumably to be used in traditional medicine. It is said that a bag of Myanmar monkey bones fetches around US $30 in China. The IUCN reports that Snub-nosed monkey parts are sometimes sold to Chinese workers at road construction and logging camps, and to wildlife traders in Kangfang, the nearest town to the animal’s territory on the Chinese border.

Members of the research team, elated after capturing one of the first ever images of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey on a camera trap. Photo by Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora International

Even as R. strykeri’s popularity as a target species declines, hunting has stayed high on the list of risks to its survival. “One of the main threats is iron [cage] trapping [for bears and other animals], and when the hunters go into the forest and they see the monkey, they shoot it,” Lwin said. In such cases, easy access to the forest and the opportunity to snag either a quick meal or a few dollars is hard to pass up. Hope for the sneezing monkey

According to Lwin, local hunters can easily identify different species of animal in the forest such as the Snub-nosed monkey or the Red panda. However, the problem in the past has been that they didn’t know that there were so few of the endangered animals left. “That’s why we first give them information… and later we facilitate at the village level to form village conservation groups,” he said. To date, 28 village conservation groups have been established in the area surrounding the Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys’ habitat, according to Lwin. Once informed of the rarity of the species, many hunters have agreed to stop setting up iron traps within its range and to stop shooting it. “The current situation is quite good,” Momberg said. Despite the multiple threats facing the monkey, it is now benefitting from a perfect storm of bans: “Hydropower is on hold; illegal

logging is on hold. That means the species could have a positive future for survival.” Momberg also reported that the recent clampdown on logging is working. He revealed that no illegal logging has occurred within the area inhabited by the monkey since the beginning of this year. In a stroke of good fortune for the Snub-nosed monkey, strong seasonal rains also washed away some logging roads, limiting access to the forest and thus closing a potential door to wildlife traffickers.

Treacherous field work. To study the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey the researchers had to traverse steep, snow covered landscapes; even then sightings are still rare. Photo by Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora International

Despite this, he remains cautious: “The future of the monkey is not secure,” Momberg warned. “The moratorium on the development of the hydropower project lapses

this year, and whether or not the project will be renewed or scrapped is unclear. “ For Momberg the answer to this single “big question mark” is crucial. If the project goes ahead, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey may well be plunged back into peril and toward oblivion. Unlimited road access into the forest, without restrictions or checks for hunters, could result in a massive increase in wildlife trafficking, he said. The prospect concerns him deeply, as free entry into the deep forest “could easily lead to the extinction of the species.” Alongside these more “traditional” conservation threats, Momberg outlines another: political instability in Kachin state threatens the survival of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey too. Conservation is often an unseen victim during major periods of civil unrest. When bullets fly, the continuation of research projects can become impossible; roaming

bands of soldiers can kill animals for food or for the wildlife trade, and starved rural communities may be forced to eat wildlife they would normally protect. For example, a two-decade civil war that devastated the Democratic Republic of the Congo also devastated ( its population of Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). Long-running battles between the federal government of Myanmar and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) did not reach into the Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys’ habitat in past years, but the conflict did stretch as far as the region’s access roads. This had consequences for primate researchers; FFI’s operations were halted intermittently for a period of about two years between 2014 and 2015, Momberg said. International scientists found it difficult and dangerous during that time to gain access to the area. “Our project never really stopped. But

for international staff we had part-time restrictions,” he revealed. For now, a tenuous ceasefire is in place and holding, but there’s no certainty that peace is secure or that the conflict might reignite. Conserve the forest, conserve the monkey A key to preserving any species is, of course, protecting its remaining habitat. In an important step toward that goal for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, a new national park is currently being designed, known as Imawbum National Park ( This preserve will encompass the species’ territory and give it much needed permanent protection from loggers and hunters. “One of the reasons why nobody seemed to take action against logging in the past was because this was unclassified forest,” Momberg explained, and so it did

not fall under the control of the state forest department. For some time, forest access was not even under government control, but rather that of a Kachin separatist group. In a sense, said the researcher, governance of the area in which the monkeys lived was a political free-for-all.

Filling in the gaps. Understanding this newly discovered monkey will be key to conserving it, but that means going where the snubnosed monkey is, high in the treetops on precipitous mountain escarpments. Photo by Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora International

But today the park is moving forward. Consultations with local communities have been highly positive, with almost all agreeing to the creation of the new park.

Next, the preserve boundaries need to be laid out, and then the final administrative steps taken. According to Momberg, the Imawbum Park will be Myanmar’s first, where free and prior consent is enshrined. With major administrative and bureaucratic hurdles still to be overcome, it may yet be a couple years before the park is officially announced. Nonetheless, it’s a major step forward toward preservation for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, as well as other species inhabiting the region such as the endangered Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) and the rare Takin (Budorcas taxicolor), which is a kind of goat-antelope hybrid. Working with local communities and achieving their cooperation will be key to the success of the park, said Momberg. “We’ve had the first successful steps. We want to achieve in the long-term a fully staffed and managed park… a collaborative system working with local communities.” A less than beautiful species

It’s safe to say that the conservation attention heaped on the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey since 2010 was most definitely not based on the species appearance. In fact, the animal, as seen in its very few blurred, distant photos, could be described as decidedly un-pretty. Covered in mostly black fur with tufty white ears; with a pinkish face, white beard and up-turned nose (the cause of the chronic rain-induced sneezing); this particular Snubnosed monkey isn’t a looker.

A camera trap catches a glimpse of a Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. Photo courtesy of FFI/Banca/PRCF

When asked why it should be conserved Momberg agrees to the unlikelihood of the animal winning any beauty pageants: “I mean of course it might not be the most beautiful species, but it’s certainly unique!” Unique, and so far, little understood. Scientists don’t know much more about the monkey than they did six years ago, and are only in the early stages of study. Wary of humans due to years of hunting, the monkeys are rarely encountered, making data gathering difficult. Momberg describes them as “shy”. Lwin still hasn’t seen the monkey alive in the wild, though members of his field team have. This elusiveness makes counting the animals possibly fluctuating numbers challenging. Lwin believes the population is “more or less stable”, but with the animals dwelling for long stretches of the year in steep, high altitude habitat that is often

covered in deep snow, the researchers don’t really know if that assessment is accurate. “So we haven’t been very successful in counting the monkey,” Lwin conceded. But what scientists have learned is striking. Research has begun to divulge a picture of a highly social primate. From the, admittedly, scant observations, the species appears to have a unique social organization, unlike any other primate species observed in Myanmar or Southeast Asia. “Langurs live in a maximum of twenty to thirty [in a] group,” Momberg explained, while the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey seems to live in much larger bands, of up to 100 individuals. “None of the other species have these large bands in Southeast Asia.” Researchers believe that there are three to four existing populations of the new species, occurring within their range around Myanmar’s Maw River.

One group, north of the Maw, contains 60-80 individuals; a second group, south of the river has 80-100; and a group of about 150 lives in the foothills of major mountains above Chichitago village, according to the IUCN. Momberg justifies the need to protect this endangered monkey: “It is [not only] very unique, [but also] a charismatic flagship species for this area,” he said. Though news since the 2010 scientific discovery is promising — with a major dam on hold, illegal logging banned, local communities supporting conservation efforts, and a national park in the works — the future of the species remains in a fragile state. The next chapter in the story? Getting to know the sneezing monkey a little better, building a knowledge base that can help in its conservation.

A quality photo of the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey has yet to be shot, with most being blurred shots taken at a considerable distance. Sketch by Martin Aveling/Fauna & Flora International.

On the ground, Lwin and his team are hoping to begin filling some of those knowledge gaps very soon. Later this year they plan on working with biologists to study the local populations; learning about their behavior, movement and more. In the long term, survival for the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey depends on finding solutions to all too human problems.

Will the region’s fragile peace hold? Will plans for the Myitsone dam project be permanently shelved? And how can China’s insatiable demand for wood, energy and wildlife be met, without putting R. strykeri back on to the road to extinction? A more urgent question may be whether or not the separate tributary dam project on the Ngaw Chan Khka goes ahead, despite strong local opposition. The dam could have direct consequences for the Imawbum National Park and thus for the species, as reservoir flooding drives agriculture into the high hills encroaching on critical habitat. Competition for land from local people, deforestation and the possibility of yet more roads and trails carved into remote forest would add a raft of potential perils to those already endured by the threatened primate. Strangely and ironically, it could be that the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey may have been saved for

posterity by that tell tale sneeze. This odd trait, related by hunters to scientists, brought this Almost Famous primate into the public eye, and into conservationists’ consciousness. Now, hunters wanting to shoot these animals are being steadily replaced by biologists wanting to study them. Thus hope remains that in the not too distant future, when a sneeze is heard on a rainy day in the high altitude forests of Northeast Myanmar, the only shooting going on may be through a camera lens.

Article published by Glenn Scherer

Deforestation has been trending upward in the Tanintharyi region of southern Myanmar, with the area losing 6 percent of its tree cover in 14 years. Mines and new roads are among the threats to its forest. A committee formed by a community in Tanintharyi is working to preserve the remaining forest of the Kamoethway river valley. The organization – Rays of Kamoethway Indigenous People and Nature – has established nine different conservation zones in the region. But members say another conservation project established by Myanmar’s government and funded by oil and gas companies is threatening the community and its conservation efforts.

U Ye Aung spent most of his adult life in a war zone. For over 60 years his village of Kalaikyi served as the frontline in one of Myanmar’s longest running civil wars. During the conflict, villagers from the Kamoethway river valley were subjected to forced labor, arbitrary killing, looting and extortion at the hands of the Myanmar military and Karen separatists. The fighting was finally brought to an end in 2012 after a preliminary ceasefire was signed between the Myanmar government and Karen National Union. “It brought me great relief as I was finally able to live out the rest of my years in peace,” said U Ye Aung, now aged 55. That was until the bulldozers arrived in Kalaikyi to clear land for a new highway that would stretch 138 kilometers (86 miles) from the Special Economic Zone in Myanmar’s southernmost city of Dawei to the Thai border at Phu Nam Ron.

“We were so angry because we had no control over the situation” U Ye Aung said. He told Mongabay he lost almost all of his betel forests and “was really scared because I am old and those betel nut farms were supposed to be my pension.” The road was designed by private company Italian-Thai Development PCL and supported by Myanmar’s old military regime. Construction stopped in 2013 after Italian-Thai Development fell into financial difficulty. All that remains of the two-lane highway is a muddy scar, severing Kalaikyi and the Kamoethway river valley. However, the new government has just reaffirmed its commitment to the Dawei Special Economic Zone and, with funding from Japan, road construction is expected to continue. Other development projects have followed in their footsteps. In 2012, mining company UMG

entered the valley and began exploration for minerals before being evicted by the community. “Once we were afraid of bullets, now we are afraid of outsiders destroying our natural resources and cultural heritage,” U Ye Aung said. Community members unite for conservation Under constant threat of land grabs and eviction, the Kamoethway community formed a village committee dedicated to environmental conservation. This organization, Rays of Kamoethway Indigenous People and Nature (RKIPN), has now become a leading example of community-based conservation in Myanmar. They say their success proves that indigenous people can effectively manage their own natural resources without government or foreign intervention. “We started the RKIPN because we did not want our natural resources – our land, water and forests – to be lost or destroyed

by these outside forces who kept coming onto our land,” said RKIPN chairman U Saw Kho. Using its members’ local knowledge of the surrounding environment, RKIPN has established nine different conservation zones in the Kamoethway river valley, including a wildlife sanctuary, fish conservation zone and watershed zone. Each zone has its own rules and regulations that are policed and enforced by the community. RKIPN is also conducting detailed surveys of the flora and fauna in their territory with help from a local civil society organization called TRIP NET. A fish diversity survey found 86 different species including three previously unknown species that are awaiting official classification. Using this evidence, the RKIPN have been able to fend off multiple mining projects that would have threatened the local ecosystem.

Other communities in Tanintharyi Region, the southernmost state of Myanmar, have endured a much longer struggle against these proposals. Earlier this year, two tin mines were suspended by the local government for failing to follow the Mining Law and causing environmental damage. The Heinda and Bawapin mines had long been opposed by surrounding communities, which accused the companies of polluting water supplies and ruining farmland. Myanmar had around 43 million hectares of tree cover in 2000, according to data from the University of Maryland and visualized on the monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. However, between 2001 and 2014, more than 2 million hectares were lost – mostly to agriculture, logging and other human activities. In other words, Myanmar lost nearly 5 percent of its tree cover in 14 years. Tanintharyi’s forest loss was even

greater, with the region losing more than 6 percent of its tree cover over that same time period. Nevertheless, Myanmar’s forests are some of the most extensive and intact in mainland Southeast Asia, with several areas of particularly continuous and undisturbed primary forest called Intact Forest Landscapes remaining today. The southern forests of Tanintharyi Region have been identified as high priority by the Myanmar government. They consist of mature forest formations, with evergreen dipterocarp forest on higher ground and semi-evergreen in lower areas. The region supports resident populations of several threatened species including Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), Asian tapirs (Acrocodia indica) and plain-pouched hornbills (Rhyticeros subruficollis). There have also been occasional signs of Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti), but its status in the region is unclear.

Tanintharyi is Myanmar’s southernmost province, and still contains Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs), as well as large swaths of mangroves. However, many of these IFLs have been degraded since 2000 and deforestation appears to be increasing, with more tree cover lost in 2014 than in any other year since measuring began in 2001.

The road from Dawei to the Thai border cuts through a large IFL that occupies the Kamoethway river valley, with satellite data and imagery showing secondary roads and other development radiating outwards into forest that was undisturbed as of 2000. After a construction stall in 2013, Myanmar’s

government is pressing forward with the project.

Conservation vs. conservation The latest threat to the Kamoethway river valley comes from other conservationists rather than extractive industries, say RKIPN representatives. The Tanintharyi Nature Reserve Project (TNRP) is a 420,000-acre conservation zone. It was established by the Myanmar government but funded by the oil and gas companies Total and Pentronas as part of their corporate social responsibility program for the controversial Yadana gas pipeline. The project is designed to contribute to the conservation of Myanmar’s biodiversity while compensating for some of the impacts on biodiversity caused by the pipeline and support facilities. The project will continue for the lifetime of the gas pipeline, which currently is expected to last at least until 2028.

Although founded in 2005, the TNRP could not be established until the ethnic conflict drew to a close in 2012. The forest department has only recently entered the Tanintharyi hills to demarcate the protected area, which overlaps with customary land managed by the indigenous Karen people living in the Kamoethway river valley. This has raised concerns among RKIPN members that they will lose control of their forests to an outside organization with a theoretical rather than practical understanding of local ecosystems. The organization employs traditional Karen techniques to protect the flora and fauna on its land. Because of this history of conservation, RKIPN believes it is best able to protect the region’s natural resources. “The wildlife in Tanintharyi was safe long before we started our conservation project because the Karen were the only people using the forest….the Karen are known

for the strong bond to nature and our ancestors taught us to conserve the nature upon which we depend” U Saw Kho told Mongabay. With the exception of the wildlife sanctuary where humans are prohibited from harming any species, villagers can kill animals that are found on their land as long as it is not done for commercial purposes. However, using their own knowledge of local animal populations, the community has created a list of restricted species that cannot be hunted under any circumstance. This includes almost all mammal species that are completely protected under the Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Protected Areas Law (1994) as well as other species that do not have full protection according to Myanmar law, like the barking deer.

RKIPN has also protected certain indigenous cultural practices that are rarely recognized by the government or outside conservation projects. The smallest of their nine conservation zones is an umbilical cord forest, where parents bury the umbilical cord of their newborn child in a traditional Karen ceremony that is believed to bring good health. Balancing environmental protection with ways of life RKIPN’s greatest concern with the TRNP is that it may threaten the livelihoods of Kamoethway villages that have lived off the forest for over 1,000 years. Recognizing that environmental conservation must be integrated with securing sustainable livelihoods, members of RKIPN conducted a socioeconomic survey of the Kamoethway river valley. It found that 28 percent of the villagers’ cash and non-cash incomes come directly from the

forest, with betel nut farms providing the largest source of income. “We follow the same meaning of conservation as used by our ancestors: protection and utilization” said Franktheera Abreu, coordinator of TRIP NET. “We protect the forest in order to utilize it but we utilize it in a sustainable way. Internationally recognized conservation projects want us to stop using the forest altogether but we are also part of the ecosystem and we need it to live.”

A man works in one of the upland rice farms in the Kamoethway river valley. Photo by Katie Arnold

Under no circumstance may villagers in the Kamoethway river valley commercially fell timber. However, RKIPN has established a utilization forest where the indigenous population can obtain construction materials, firewood, food and herbal medicine. There is also an agro-forestry zone that permits the integration of planted food crops according to the local forest type. “We have to be able to go into the forest freely so that we can protect our livelihoods, we will not be prohibited from our forest” U Saw Kho said. The RKIPN territory is not officially recognized by the local government. However, through effective management of this area the organization hopes to boost its bargaining power with the authorities. Under the 1995 Community Forest Instruction amendment, forest user groups can apply to their district forestry department for permission to establish a community forest.

Since this instruction was added to the Forest Law, an average of 7,000 acres of community forest has been established in Myanmar each year. In total, 42,000 acres of forest are protected under the RKIPN’s nine conservation zones. Franktheera Abreu says the district forestry department supports their local conservation project. However when approached, neither the district forestry or conservation departments were available for comment as they claimed not to know about the RKIPN. There have, however, been encouraging steps on the national stage with representatives from the RKIPN invited to the Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, to discuss community conservation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. “It was a positive meeting,” U Saw

Kho said, “but it is too early to say whether the new government will support us.” The TNRP includes a community development program that aims to improve the livelihoods of local villagers though community forest activities. There are 12,000 people, from 29 different villages, living within the reserve boundaries. So far, the TNRP’s managers have established 17 community forests where these villagers can fell timber for personal use, extract forest products and practice agroforestry. The community forests range in size from 300 to 5,000 acres and act as a buffer zone for the core protected area, which villagers are not allowed to use. The district forest departments are helping villagers manage their community forests by providing cash crop seedlings and fruit trees. “The local communit[ies] do not earn much money and rely on these forests and fruit trees for most of their income….we do not

want to damage that livelihood,” said the TNRP park warden U Hla Myo Aung. Nevertheless, villagers from the RKIPN do not intend on participating in the project. “We are not objecting to conservation but to a top down approach. If conservation involves the community and is participatory then it is more likely to work,” Franktheera Abreu said. “TRIP NET has created at platform that allows communities to plan their own bottom up approach to conservation and that is why it is so successful.”

A women returns from the forest after a day at work. Photo by Katie Arnold

In two years, RKIPN has attracted more than 100 members who represent all 12 villages in the Kamoethway river valley. All members are part of a working group that takes direct responsibility for a particular zone of the forest. Using the community-based research as a control, these groups continually monitor the forest and its flora and fauna. “This is a community-run project that benefits the whole community. Therefore, it will get passed from generation [to] generation,” U Saw Kho said. While not aware of RKIPN specifically, TNRP park warden U Hla Myo Aung does admit that there have been problems with community participation along the southern boundary of the TNRP, near the Kamoethway river valley. “This is a political issue rather than an issue with conservation,” he said. “The problem here is that some Karen people are coming back from Thailand [since the

ceasefire] and settling in the southern part of the TNRP. They do not have any rights over the land but complain to the local community and CSOs [civil society organizations], occupy the land and make it hard of us to enter….it is a political issue that needs to be solved at the highest level” U Hla Myo Aung told Mongabay. Other indigenous groups in Tanintharyi Region have been inspired by RKIPN and are beginning to assert control over their own natural resources. Earlier this month, 17 villagers from the Myeik region visited Kamoethway to observe their techniques. Their ancestral lands fall within the boundaries of another government-run conservation zone, the Tanintharyi Nature Park (TNP). “We are concerned because if the TNP goes ahead we might lose our livelihoods. People in Myeik have already lost their land because of oil [palm] plantations. If there were any more land grabs

or restrictions then we would have nowhere to live or work” San Ngwe from Myeik told Mongbay. “Hopefully after visiting Kamoethway we will feel empowered to use our indigenous knowledge to conserve our own territory.” RKIPN does not have any outside backers other than the locally based civil society organization, TRIP NET. However, there is a growing international pressure for conservation groups to respect the rights of indigenous people. Earlier this month, UN special rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told delegates at the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress in Honolulu that “projects supported by major conservation organizations continue to displace local peoples from their ancestral homes.” She specifically named the World Wildlife Fund,

Conservation International and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as guilty partners. The latter worked closely with the government as technical advisors on the development and implementation of the TNRP. “WCS believes that effective and sustainable conservation can only happen with the close engagement of the local civil society,” Rama Wong, WCS regional advisor, told Mongabay. “Communities living inside and near protected areas are our most precious resource for protecting wildlife resources… For this reason, WCS invests heavily on empowering the capacity of local communities to take ownership and manage their natural resources. “WCS acts as a bridge between local communities and the government… While local communities know us and know what we do, external foreign observers may misinterpret our work because of our role and position of proximity with

government institutions.” WCS also said that they are working with the RKIPN on certain activities. But members of RKIPN say they do not necessarily need outside support to continue their conservation efforts. “We are revolutionaries,” U Saw Kho concluded. “For 60 years we had to listen to the dictators, now it is time for the leaders to listen to us.”

Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis


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Rhett A. Butler founded in 1999 out of his passion for tropical forests. He called the site Mongabay after an island in Madagascar. Since then, Mongabay has grown into the world’s most popular rainforest information site and a well-known source of environmental news reporting and analysis. Today Mongabay draws more than 2.5 million visitors per month and publishes stories in half a dozen languages. It is commonly used as an information source by mainstream media, including The Economist, Bloomberg, National Geographic, and the Associated Press. Mongabay is also widely recognized as an accurate and


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