Myanmar’s ongoing land conflict contributed to rapid forest cover loss

Habitats of globally threatened species, including the critically endangered Gurney’s pitta and recently discovered geckos, face destruction due to logging, agriculture and other human pressures.

Gurney’s pittas Myanmar
Gurney’s pittas, which are endemic to southern Myanmar, are declining rapidly through habitat loss, civil unrest and poaching. Image: Save Myanmar's Gurney's Pitta

Reaching down into the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region is home to rainforests that support a unique assemblage of endemic and endangered species, including the endangered Malay tapir (Tapirus indicus), critically endangered Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) and endangered lar gibbon (Hylobates lar).

But the relative flatness of much of the forest, along with its valuable timber species and its suitability for a variety of commodity crops, renders it extremely vulnerable to large-scale industrial agriculture, logging and other human pressures.

For a long time, the region’s biodiversity went relatively unscathed due to protracted political and economic isolation from much of the world. However, political and economic reforms have led to major transformations in the area. Even areas previously untouched have now been opened up to investors both local and foreign, putting a strain on the many wildlife populations that reside there.

Areas targeted by loggers and plantation companies include two proposed national parks, Lenya and Tanintharyi, that together cover more than 526,000 hectares (1.3  million acres). They were first proposed by the Myanmar government in 2002 and remain on hold due to regional conflict.

Despite the potential ecological benefits of legal environmental protection, conservation efforts to establish protected areas in the region have been rejected by campaigners who say doing so would violate the rights of local Indigenous communities.

Other more recent land protection proposals, such as the Ridge to Reef project, have also faced resistance by supporters of the Conservation Alliance of Tanintharyi (CAT). In a recent report, the groups said these proposals “fail to respect the rights of indigenous people and threaten to cut communities off from their lands, resources and livelihoods.”

Meanwhile, satellite data show escalating deforestation in the region. Between 2001 and 2019, 6,230 hectares (15,395 acres) of forest disappeared, amounting to a 3.4 per cent decrease in forest cover, according to data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualised on Global Forest Watch. Prelimninary UMD data for 2020 indicate tha deforestation this year may be on track to surpass all previous years since data collection began in 2001.

The main reason that companies get concessions in the area is to take valuable timber.We can see from some concessions that they have not planted anything in over 10 years but have cleared large areas of pristine forest.

Naw Eh Htee Wah, coordinator, Conservation Alliance of Tanintharyi 

False pretenses, fake plantations

Many of Tanintharyi’s unprotected lowland areas have been granted to companies to grow oil palm trees for the production of palm oil. However, a study published in August 2019 in Scientific Reports found only 15 per cent of oil palm concession areas in southern Myanmar are currently planted with oil palm, amounting to some 49,000 hectares (121,100 acres).

Within the proposed national park boundaries, approximately 4 per cent of concessions (around 1,000 hectares or 2,500 acres) are planted with oil palm or rubber trees. In other words, the study found concessions are not being used for their officially intended use and remain either forested or occupied by other crops.

CAT coordinator Naw Eh Htee Wah says there are more than 50 oil palm companies in Tanintharyi, which together manage concessions totaling more than 324,000 hectares (800,000 acres). He says the worst deforestation takes place legally, approved by the law and government departments — and not with the goal of producing palm oil.

“The main reason that companies get concessions in the area is to take valuable timber,” Naw Eh Htee Wah told Mongabay via email. “We can see from some concessions that they have not planted anything in over 10 years but have cleared large areas of pristine forest.”

Trees felled during the process of clearing land for agriculture are known as “conversion timber”; this type of clearing is often used as a loophole by companies around the world to access valuable timber and undertake logging operations in areas where outright logging is illegal but agricultural projects are not.

Obtaining a concession under the guise of developing a plantation allows companies to bypass restrictions and obtain permission to clear the land and sell the timber, with little actual intention of planting the promised agricultural crops that landed them the concessions in the first place.

Naw Eh Htee Wah said this is because timber, not palm oil, is the main target of these companies. When it comes to timber, “you can get a lot of profit from that,” he said, adding that palm oil and rubber are “not priorities.”

The paper published in Scientific Reports also highlights there are approximately 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of intact forests in southern Myanmar where palm oil concessions have been granted, some overlapping with the proposed national parks. According to author Keiko Nomura, most of the companies who hold these concessions had initially “no to little knowledge of agriculture or palm oil cultivation,” and instead engaged in logging where accessible.

Conversion timber, she says, is “a very well known fact,” and most of the companies that were granted concessions did so as long as there was a road to transport the timber. Back when Nomura was carrying out fieldwork in 2017, “almost everyone I talked to knew about the ban,” she said. “But it wasn’t clear to anyone about the legality of concession timber.”

However, Kevin Woods, author of another report on the expansion of commercial agriculture in Myanmar, this one published in 2015, says conversion timber was more prominent at the time he wrote his report; “since then, the NLD [National League for Democracy] government has not issued many more concessions,” he said.

According to Woods, there has been a clampdown in recent years on logging and exports, which has hampered the extraction of conversion timber. But Naw Eh Htee Wah said that “because of corruption, you can trade and transport your timber easily.”

Imperiled pittas

The proposed national parks are home to some of the world’s last remaining Gurney’s pittas (Hydrornis gurneyi). Endemic to southern Myanmar, the vibrant-colored and elusive bird was feared extinct for decades before being rediscovered in the 1980s. But conservationists worry actual extinction may not be far off as its lowland forest habitat is cleared for timber and crops.

study published in Oryx in 2019 found that in less than two decades since 1999, suitable habitat for the species declined by some 80 per cent. Last year the IUCN elevated the conservation status of the Gurney’s pitta from endangered to critically endangered in light of these threats.

Nay Myo Shwe, co-author of the paper and Ph.D. student at the School of Bioresources and Technology at King Mongkut’s University of Technology in Thailand, said “the remaining suitable habitat for the Gurney’s Pitta is in serious decline.” He said this should “sound the alarm” to all those concerned — “conservationists, organisations, government officials and key stakeholders” — that serious measures must be implemented to save it from extinction.

Although previously found in southern Thailand, it is now functionally extinct in the country due to a lack of protection. “We must conserve and protect habitats and species, alongside local communities, using methods of legal protection,” Nay Myo Shwe told Mongabay via email. “The lack of legal protection is what leads to uncontrolled land clearance.”

Conservationists and researchers worry Myanmar’s few remaining Gurney’s pittas may end up following a similar fate.

Cement vs. geckos

Taninthari’s flat forests aren’t the only ones under threat from industry. Limestone karst mining is also a major threat to biodiversity in the hillier parts of the region. The Lenya region supports large tracts of karst outcrops that are mined for limestone for use in making cement. As a consequence, Myanmar’s karst outcrops are among the least protected in Southeast Asia.

A limestone concession was recently granted to 24 Hour Company Limited, which is running a 1,165-hectare (2,880-acre) limestone quarry right in the middle of the Lenya Extension area, a 284,000-hectare (265,600-acre) addition to the proposed Lenya National Park. The Limestone Production Project is slated to operate for a period of 10 years (until September 2023), and researchers, such as ecologist Grant Connette, say it will have major repercussions for forest-dwelling species, including Gurney’s pittas and some newly discovered gecko species.

24 Hour Company Limited did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

In 2015 and 2016, researchers discovered two new species of bent-toed geckos of the genus Cyrtodactylus on shaded limestone outcrops in the area. Led by Smithsonian herpetologist Dan Mulcahy, day and night surveys were conducted in different habitat types, including in trees, around streams and on rock outcrops, revealing two species new to science: Clenya and Cpayarhtanensis. Mulcahy and his colleagues published their findings in PLOS ONE in 2017.

Connette, co-author of the paper and an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), told Mongabay not much is known about the new gecko species described but added its presence is “an indication that there are likely many more species unique to southern Tanintharyi that are yet to be documented.”

“A key take-home message from our research is that scientists still have a lot to learn about the biodiversity of southern Tanintharyi,” Connette said. “The two gecko species we described in our paper, as well as several others described later, are not known to occur anywhere else in the world.” The researchers write that the isolated nature of the limestone outcrops mean the geographical ranges of these geckos are limited and they are highly threatened by the area’s lack of protection.

“It is possible that this habitat loss could mean the loss of species that scientists never even knew existed,” Connette said.

Between 2015 and 2017 researchers found another new gecko in the region, this one belonging to the Asian rock gecko genus Cnemaspis. The discovery of Cnemaspis tanintharyi marks the first recorded Asian rock gecko in the Myanmar mainland, and its description was published in Zootaxa in 2019.

Study co-author Justin Lee, research fellow at the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., shares Connette’s concerns that undiscovered species could blink out of existence before they’re recorded, calling it “a sad and unfortunate reality that many scientists in the field face. It’s hard to fathom how much biodiversity has been lost because of deforestation across the tropics.”

Lee said that studies like his play an important role in shedding light on the ecological value of the region.

“Part of what makes good conservation policy is understanding what species occur in your area of focus.” Lee told Mongabay via email. “By describing new species and supplying researchers with an inventory of what species are present around the proposed national parks, we gain a greater understanding of the region’s biodiversity.”

The issues surrounding the proposed national parks are “certainly complex,” Lee said; however, “as long as the forest and karst outcrops do not become fragmented or degraded, the geckos should be able to survive.”

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