Forests and Forestry in Burma

   Burma is blessed with rich forest resources. However, since 1988 the irresponsible exploitation of forests both by pro- and antigovernment groups has caused rapid deforestation-as much as 1.4 percent annually during the 1990s. It is estimated that at independence in 1948, forests covered 70 percent of Burma's land area, and that currently there is only 41-42 percent forest cover (27.2 million hectares), still one of the highest in Southeast Asia.
   Seventy-five percent of Burma's forests are tropical; the other 25 percent, located in northern areas, are temperate. Historically and commercially, the most important tree species is teak (Tectona grandis; kyun in Burmese); Burma possesses about 70 percent of the world's teak reserves. During the dynastic period, teak was a royal monopoly, and both British colonial and independent Burmese governments claimed teak forests as state property, meaning that the state has the authority to control logging, usually carried out on a concessionary basis by private firms. Teak has been used for construction of royal palaces, Buddhist monasteries, traditional and Western-style houses, furniture, and ships. Because of its high quality, there is considerable international demand at present for teak furniture, flooring, and decks for ships, a major reason for Burma's alarming deforestation. Other important hardwoods are pyinkado or Burmese ironwood (Xylia dolabriformis), used for bridges, docks, and railroad ties, and padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus), used for bullock carts, boats, and housing. In (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus), a tree yielding an inferior type of wood, has been widely used for building low-cost houses, carts, and boats. Resin from the thitsi tree is used in traditional lacquerware. When the British annexed Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) and Moulmein (Mawlamyine) following the First Anglo-Burmese War, they allowed unregulated exploitation, which within decades stripped these areas of most of their forest cover. Hardwoods were used primarily for ship construction. In 1856, following the annexation of Lower Burma, the colonial government established the Forest Department, which enforced strict conservation of teak and other trees.
   The Brandis Selection System (named for the official, Dietrich Brandis, who was the Forest Department's first director and initiated scientific logging in Burma) guaranteed sustainable exploitation by determining that only trees with a girth of at least 6.5 to 7.6 feet could be felled. Logging became a principal source of revenue for the Province of Burma. On the eve of World War II (1939-1940), British Burma produced 447,000 tons of timber, an amount unsurpassed in the postwar era. Yet colonial-era forests remained largely intact. Colonial-era loggers used elephants to move the logs to rivers, where they were floated in huge rafts down to sawmills. The most valuable forests were found in the teak-rich Pegu Yoma uplands of central Burma.
   After independence in 1948, forest conservation was hampered by political instability and insurgency. Central governments attempted to enforce modified versions of the Brandis Selection System, but border area insurgents, especially the Karen National Union, controlled extensive forest lands and made money from sale of hardwoods to neighboring countries, especially Thailand.
   After it seized power on September 18, 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) found itself desperately short of hard currency. Following a state visit by Thai army commander Chaovalit Yongchaiyudh in December, SLORC concluded five-year concessionary agreements with 42 Thai firms to exploit forests inside the Burmese border. Clear cutting became rampant as the licensees sought to make as quick a profit as possible. Although these concessions were shut down in 1993, unregulated export of Burmese hardwoods into Thailand continues. At the beginning of the 21st century, it is surpassed in scale by logging operations along the Burma-China border involving local businesspeople and armed groups that have signed cease-fires with the central government. Despite passing a Forest Law in 1992, the post-1988 military regime has been unable or unwilling to slow the pace of deforestation, and many observers fear that hardwood forests will disappear within a generation.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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