More on Myanmar: Taking Care of Teak

Teak logging

Jack Hurd is the director of the Asia-Pacific Forest Program for The Nature Conservancy. This is the second in a series of posts on Myanmar; revist the first post to catch up.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) has long been associated with rich tropical forests. In fact, what is now known as the Myanmar Selection System was developed more than 150 years ago as the ideal approach to managing tropical forests with many tree species but only a few with commercial value.

Unfortunately, forest management standards in the country went into a long period of decline over the past 50 years thanks to a succession of military rulers, and the concept of sustainability was subordinated to more pressing political and economic interests. Now, the landscape in Myanmar is changing fast.

Myanmar has about 30 million hectares of forest, representing 45 percent of its land. Approximately 16 million of those hectares can be considered teak forest. What is stunning, however, is that this represents approximately 85 percent of the world’s naturally occurring teak. There are other valuable tropical hardwood trees — mahogany, ironwood, etc. — but in Asia, teak is king. And, as a brand, teak resonates in markets around the globe.

So what’s the government of Myanmar doing about the management of its forests? At this point, we’re not totaly sure. But as the country opens its doors to foreign involvement, there’s a better chance that some of the following actions may take place in Myanmar.

  • Develop a Grand Plan for Forest Management: Due to sanctions levied against Myanmar by the US and the EU, international institutions like the World Bank that would normally assist countries with planning around natural resource usage have been forbidden to help out. If the political process of re-engagement continues and sanctions are lifted, those international institutions could return, and the government would be wise to take advantage of international forestry expertise. Adopting a sector-wide approach to managing this key strategic resource would clearly be in the best long-term interests of the country.
  • Refine Forest Zoning: Different forests require different management solutions. In areas where communities are heavily dependent on forests for their livelihoods and survival, local people need to be involved in management. In forests of high value to biodiversity, forests should be managed by the government for strict protection. And in many teak forests, management should revert back to a version of the Myanmar Selection System designed to ensure a sustainable supply of high-quality teak for domestic and international markets. Myanmar has valuable forestland that requires a mosaic approach, incorporating multiple land use forms and objectives.
  • Bring Transparency to the Management of Production Forests: Currently, there is little faith in discerning high-value markets as to the legality, let alone sustainability, of Myanmar’s hardwoods. Yet, given its enormous supply, the government can strengthen and differentiate its brand in the marketplace by adopting better tracking and reporting practices. While Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is a long ways off, third-party approval of Myanmar’s forestry practices would assuage international concerns in a big way.
  • Attract the Optimum Amount of Value-Added Processing Capacity: International sanctions have stymied the development of value-added processing (or, the ability to make wood-based products for both domestic and international markets). As such, Myanmar’s timber is primarily exported as raw material. By attracting investment to value-added processing, the value of forests increases, as timber generates higher returns, creates jobs and provides tax revenue.

Right now, Myanmar’s forests are under-valued, and that’s led to overexploitation and forest degradation. In a country that’s plagued by poverty, where forests have long served as a social safety net for community groups, that outcome has been devastating, removing an important source of livelihood and income for villagers. It’s a bleak picture, but there are two reasons for hope.

The first is that, even over the past few decades, the forests have had advocates in Myanmar — people trying to help officials and land managers build on what they have. This means that there are local experiences in place, and international organizations can and should seek to build on this foundation.

Second, the country’s increasing openness means there’s a good chance that international sanctions will be eased this year. The EU recently committed 150 million Euros in assistance to Myanmar and will revisit the idea of listing the sanctions later in the calendar year. This would provide the country with the opportunity to learn the lessons of other regional developing countries and use the latest critical thinking in managing forests to protect valuable natural resources that will sustain its people for generations.

(Image: Building teak rafts to transport logs down a river. Credit: Anne-Carole Fooks.)

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