As darkness fell in the forests of central Myanmar on a rainy evening last July, May Thu and her husband Myint Swe*, were wrapping up their day’s work: illegal logging.
May Thu, a petite 27-year-old with long black hair and shining black eyes, clambered on top of some logs assembled in a pile. It was monsoon season and the wood was slippery. She fell and landed on the buzzing blade of her husband’s chain saw.
At first, there was no pain, but she knew she was in trouble.
“OK, I just got injured by a chain saw, this will be big,” she recalls thinking.
Myint Swe, a gentle man with foxlike features and a nervous disposition, scooped her up.
“It’s just a small one,” he lied as he carried her back to their village. They had been happily married for 10 years. But when she asked him to stop so she could look at the wound, she saw a deep incision across the backs of her legs, backside and vagina. There was a tremendous amount of blood.
May Thu and Myint Swe live in a tiny village north of Mandalay, the country’s second largest city; a two-hour drive along bumpy roads plied by minivans and trucks, some carrying cut logs on their roofs. Their logging work is illegal.
The country has the third highest deforestation rate in the world, close behind Brazil and Indonesia, the worst offenders according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment.
Between 2010 and 2015, the country lost a half a million hectares of forest annually. The government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has tried to slow the losses, introducing a ban on logging shortly after it came to power in 2016.
It’s set to expire in April this year. Currently, the country’s timber needs are supposed to be served by stockpiles gathered by the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise.
For locals here in the heart of Myanmar’s logging country, the commercial timber trade – though prohibited – is a major source of employment.
Bald hills, once thickly forested, are testament to the enormous impact of the industry in recent years. Myanmar’s dense forests, long prized for rare and valuable Burmese teak (Tectona grandis), Burmese rosewood (Dalbergia oliveri) and Burma paduak (Pterocarpus macrocarpus), are prime real estate for logging.
On recent visits to northern and central Myanmar as part of months-long investigations into illegal logging by Mongabay reporters, at least a dozen local officials, villagers, and traffickers said the trade continues. In one village, logs were openly transported and stored outside homes.
North of Mandalay, Sagaing Division and neighboring Kachin and Shan states have borne the brunt of deforestation, according to officials.
“There are so many arrested illegal loggers… every day,” said Kyaw Zaw, director of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Conservation. “There has even been an attack on our staff by illegal loggers.”
He added that they are going against the tide in their efforts to curb illegal activity because the demand is so high.
“We are trying to stop it,” he said.
But in some towns, signs of the industry are everywhere.
On the banks of the Irrawaddy River is Katha, a sleepy town in northern Sagaing, sandwiched between Kachin and Shan, which serves as a transit hub for the trade.
Red notice boards warn residents of the penalties for logging: $15 and up to two years in jail for “extracting, moving, keeping in possession unlawfully timber.”
Some of the timber cut locally is smuggled onto boats at the jetty for transport, according to one local man who showed pictures of logs being loaded into the false bottom of a boat, a common practice.
“The profession of this town is logging,” said Kyal Ni, the local information officer for the ruling National League for Democracy, over a cup of milky Burmese tea in a Katha teashop.
When I was young I never saw chain saws in the industry. It was because people were very greedy and they just wanted to produce a lot, a lot.
Chain saw shopkeeper, Mandalay
But the trade has survived, and thrived, by going underground.
“At this time it is really hard to get detailed information about illegal logging because it’s really secret,” he said. “Before, it was quite easy [to stay informed].”
One thing that hasn’t been kept in the shadows: chain saws. Permits are required in Myanmar to legally use chain saws in disaster management or to build homes.Yet Kyal Ni said they are still openly sold and rented on the local market illegally.
The Forestry Department oversees the issuance of import licenses for the tools, but the central government has recently pledged to play a greater role in overseeing distribution and has publicized seizures of “illegal” saws.
“I don’t know much about chain saws,” said one local shopkeeper familiar with the trade, who would not give his name. “But when they came into this industry, it was ruined. When I was young I never saw chain saws in the industry. It was because people were very greedy and they just wanted to produce a lot, a lot.”
For many illegal loggers, the potential payoff is worth the obvious risks.
In 2013, according to Myanmar’s official statistics, the country exported over $580 million in wood products, most of it made up of the sale of teak logs to India.
But, that same year, imports of wood products from Myanmar of twice the value were officially declared by China ($619 million) and India ($535 million), suggesting that much of the wood was smuggled out of Myanmar without being recorded in its official statistics.
The trade transited mostly out of Kachin state according to a report by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
By 2015, Myanmar’s government said that its exports of wood products had plummeted to $86 million. The wood imports declared by China and India also dropped significantly but remained twice as high as Myanmar’s official exports ($179 million), hinting that smuggling continued.
In a 2015 report, the EIA estimated that timber smuggling between Myanmar and China was worth half a billion dollars a year.
The EIA report and multiple first-hand accounts indicate that logging company bosses and corrupt officials reap the profits of the trade.
They also make it clear that poor villagers bear the brunt of the risk by doing dangerous and illegal work. It’s not just the threat of jail – the tools of production have become increasingly risky.
According to multiple interviews with loggers, doctors and medical professionals, injury and even death is becoming common for those who to choose work in an already hazardous industry without guidance or protective gear when employing a chain saw.
The precise number of injuries and fatalities is unknown due to the secrecy that surrounds the underground trade and a dearth of records in the health sector.
For decades, loggers in Myanmar cut down trees by hand, with manual saws. Or they captured wild elephants and trained them to fell trees – a practice that continues today in parts of the country.
That has changed over recent years, following an influx of Chinese-made chain saws. In 2015, China and Singapore declared exporting more than 114,000 chain saws to Myanmar, more than in any previous years.
That represents the vast majority of the more than 118,000 chain saw exports reported by all countries to Myanmar, according to UN Comtrade data.
“Deceased fell backward while operating a chain saw and the handle struck him in the chest – torn liver, blunt trauma to chest and abdomen.”
“Attempted to remove tree branch from high tension wire with chain saw – electrocution.”
“Burned inside of arm while using chain saw cutting fence posts at farm… septic shock, infected burn, cellulitis, renal failure.”
Global timber industry experts recommend employees invest, at minimum, in a helmet with a face screen and ear protection, steel-toed, cut-resistant boots and gloves.
In the forests of remote Myanmar, where most villagers wear flip flops, little of that is available or even deemed necessary.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.