The War on Kachin Forests
By John S. Moncreif and Htun Myat/Kunming
One of the world’s "biodiversity hotspots" is under siege, as a growing number of business interests seek to cash in the "peace" in northern Burma’s Kachin State. A project is in progress to build a number of roads in Kachin State in return for huge logging concessions. While improving and expanding the infrastructure in Kachin State is much needed, the impact of this deal on the environment could prove to be disastrous.
A recent agreement involves the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and a Chinese construction company. The middleman in the deal is the Kachin Jadeland company, owned by Kachin businessmen Yup Zau Hkawng. The agreement stipulates that the Chinese company will build roads leading from Myitkyina to Sumprabum and, eventually, Putao, from Myitkyina to Bhamo, and from Wai Maw (near Myitkyina) to the Chinese border near Kampaiti. In return for building these roads, the Kachin Jadeland company and the Chinese company have been given huge logging concessions deep in Kachin State.
There are two concession areas, one located between the Mali Hka and the N’mai Hka rivers (the whole triangle-shaped area), and the other one between the railway line from Myitkyina to Mandalay to the road leading from Myitkyina to Bhamo. This area is in the heart of the Kachin State and has never been subject to large-scale logging. This project is the most massive logging effort ever undertaken in Burma, according to one observer. But, according to a source, the deal with the Chinese construction company has been terminated and Yup Zau Hkawng is negotiating with a Malaysian-Chinese company to do the job.
Another Kachin source confirms that companies from China, Malaysia and Hong Kong are working on the road from Wai Maw to the Chinese border. Despite the confusion over the partner company it looks as if Yup Zau Hkawng will go ahead with the plan. Yup Zau Hkawng is an influential businessman with close connections to the new KIO leadership as well as the SPDC. Since a shakeup in the KIO leadership last February, Col N’Ban La has assumed the position of vice-chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the KIO. He along with his underlings Lt-Col N’Sang La Awng (aka Aung Wa), chief of the "national council", and Lt-Col Lahpai Zau Tang, 2nd Brigade commander in Tanai, are on Yup Zau Khawng’s payroll, according to a Kachin source.
Yup Zau Hkawng, in turn, is also paying off the SPDC Northern Commander, Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, the source added. Continued logging in Burma threatens one of mainland Southeast Asia’s most forested regions as Burma contains half the forest in the region. In the last thirteen years, Burma’s border with Thailand has been heavily logged. Concessions granted to Thai logging firms have left areas in the Shan, Karenni, and Karen States without any significant forests. This leaves the Chindwin Valley in Sagaing Division and the Kachin State as one of the few remaining undisturbed forests in Burma.
The effect of these concessions will be devastating for the environment, says one Thai-based environmentalist. Further concessions endanger one of the world’s remaining sources of biodiversity. The Kachin State is part of the Indo-Burmese region listed by Dr. Norman Myers, an ecologist based at Oxford University’s Green College in England, as one of the eight "hottest hotspots for biodiversity" in the world. The hotspots are sites containing the greatest concentration of endemic species that are also experiencing exceptional loss of habitat. The replacement of biodiversity is difficult unless the same species are being restored.
But reforestation projects in the Kachin State are virtually non-existent. A side from the rich flora, fauna such as deer, thakin, snakes, birds, monkeys, bears, and tigers are threatened by logging in Kachin State. Several species in the Kachin State have never been recorded, and the destruction of habitat looks to make this difficult.
A 1998 report by the World Resources Institute, an environmental watch-dog organization, noted that extensive deforestation had already caused massive soil erosion, sedimentation of rivers, increased flooding and acute dry season water shortages in some areas. Further logging looks to intensify the severity of these problems. And the destruction of forests in this area along the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River will not only damage the environment but will also have a grave impact on the livelihood of people downstream.
Increased flooding endangers rice paddies along the Irrawaddy as well as riverine fisheries. According to one Burma watcher, the terms of the new concession call for the selective felling of large/mature trees only. However, the logistics involved in monitoring the areas and the high profits at stake make proper enforcement a daunting task.
Reports that mining concessions will follow the logging have also alarmed environmentalists, as mining would further degrade the land. According to the Burma watcher, the logging concession could be extended all the way to the Indian border. One analyst estimates that the logging could go on for five to ten years before running out of trees. But the rate of extraction hinges on access to roads that are often washed out during the rainy season and made impassable due to icing over in the cold season.
The new road construction projects are upgrading paths to third-grade roads to be able to handle vehicles such as logging trucks. The construction costs of the roads are expensive at 600,000 yuan (approximately US $70, 500) a mile. Logging has been underway in Kachin State for over ten years. Heavy logging has already taken place on the east side of the Nmai Kha River down to Sinbo and Bhamo, which includes the former Communist Party of Burma War Zone Area 101, under the control of the NDA-K. Reports from the region indicate that loggers have clear-cut the area. The flow of logs from these earlier concessions has fueled the growth of a thriving border trade in timber.
Logging companies have built a network of roads running from China over high mountain passes to extract the timber from a strip of land along the Kachin State’s border with China. The roads lead to a string of logging towns—Ruili, Yingjiang, Tenchong, Fugong, Hpimaw, and Panwa. In Hpimaw alone, there are an estimated seventy sawmills. A recent visitor to Pawnwa, a border town in Yunnan, reported a steady flow of logging trucks coming across the Chinese border from Burma. From these border crossings, the wood is shipped to nearby Kunming and as far away as Guangdong (Canton).
China’s appetite for wood is big and growing, particularly in Yunnan province, home to almost 40 million people, where the GDP has grown an estimated 7-10 percent over the last few years. The boom in Yunnan Province’s construction sector has created a demand for Burmese wood. The logs coming from Burma are used in buildings, doors, window frames, high-quality furniture, flooring, and household objects. In Hpimaw, wood is being made into crude chopping boards. China’s supply of wood decreased when the Chinese government implemented a logging ban for twelve provinces in 1998 after severe flooding in the upper Yangtze Valley.
In 2000, six provinces were added to the list. Since the ban, China has become the world’s second largest wood importer behind the US. The prohibition has left hundreds of thousands of Chinese loggers without jobs. Kachin State logging provided employment for a few thousand loggers in each of the towns along the border. The new concessions, however, look to provide more jobs for Chinese loggers.
This year marks the 7th anniversary of the KIO’s ceasefire agreement with Rangoon. Unlike the NKA-K and Kachin Democratic Army (KDA), the KIO has not "returned to the legal fold". The KIO says it aims to settle its political conflicts with Rangoon at the negotiation table by political means. The SPDC has told the KIO that it is only a military transitional government and is therefore not entitled to make any political agreements. It has told the KIO to wait until the National Convention has drawn up a new constitution, and a new government is formed. The ceasefire has brought an end to the bloodshed in Kachin State. Years of civil war have had a huge impact on the population.
Civilians can now travel more freely and farmers no longer fear being shot at while working in their fields. During the fighting, communities either fled to the cities and larger towns for safety, or spread in small groups and moved deeper into the jungle-clad hills and mountains. "Before the ceasefire, we were running and hiding in the forest and our villages and livestock were destroyed," says a Kachin source. "Now people can think about their future again, they can settle in one village for a long time, and plan their farming activities for the future.
People can also benefit from more healthcare facilities; that is very important." Kachin State is a very underdeveloped area. Many communities live in very isolated and remote areas, and lack of transportation and communication facilities present huge obstacles in the development of the area, despite the fact that Kachin State is rich in natural resources. During the civil war, all parties involved relied heavily on the extraction of natural resources to finance their struggle. These resources include teak, jade and gold.
After the armed opposition groups signed ceasefire agreements with the authorities in Rangoon, and the scale and pace of environmental destruction in Kachin State has increased dramatically. After the ceasefire, the organization lost control of the Hpa-kan jade mines, which provided most of its income. Now firms from China, Hong Kong and Singapore are mining there under concessions granted by Rangoon. The main income from the KIO comes from logging.
"Our KIO leaders know that it is not good, but it is the only way to get income," says the Kachin source. "Our forest will be empty, and our natural resources will be destroyed. That is the bad side of the ceasefire." According to the terms the concessions, Kachin Jadeland and the Chinese company will be able to sell the concessions to subcontractors and reap huge profits.
"Some people will benefit in the short term, but in the long term everyone loses," says one Thai-based foreign analyst. Within the KIO, complaints are rising that after the ceasefire was signed there has been no real political progress. Some KIO leaders admit that people are getting impatient. Part of the problem, they say, is that since the beginning of the revolution the leaders have ruled the organization in a military way.
Now the fighting has stopped, but the leaders have not been able to adapt to the new situation and change their ruling style. This rigidity has caused resentment among younger leaders in the KIO. The same people in the KIO point out that the lack of political progress is a nation-wide problem, and that the bottleneck is in Rangoon and not in Pajau, the KIO’s headquarters.
Says a Kachin observer in China: "The SPDC has not been able to finish the National Convention, and has not been able to make any agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi, so it is out of the question that they can settle the ethnic nationalities question." KIO sources also point out that after the ceasefire the Burmese army has dramatically increased the number of its battalions in Kachin State.
"If the SPDC want peace, and aims to settle the political problems through negotiations, why are they bringing more and more soldiers to our land?" asked a Kachin man from Myitkyina. "This is called border development but in reality they are destroying the whole environment," a Kachin in his 50s said. Additional reporting was contributed by Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw.
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