Myanmar’s military coup linked to illegal deforestation to finance oppressor military regime

Satellite images show evidence suggesting that Myanmar’s coup d’état increased the risk of unsustainable deforestation in the country. As western powers impose sanctions, the situation may be ripe for escalation. Experts say the military junta wants to make quick cash. China was observed as a buyer.

Image: Wikipedia/Dreamstime

he crackdown by the military government on unarmed protesters left many dead and the country in shambles. The military junta’s violent rule introduced on February 1 with a coup d’état bears other sad consequences, namely an increased risk for the environment.

Apart from the mass protests since the military seized control, there is new evidence emerging that under the new military’s rule, unsustainable deforestation burgeoned. The main driver, according to experts, is quick profit-making, marked by illegal timber sales previously confiscated by the military.

Open-data confirms large-scale forest clearing even before the coup and the amount of clearing and felling did increase in 2020 compared with 2019.

Deforestation already increased before the coup, but have since further deteriorated, experts says (Chart: TJ)

However, since the coup in February, experts are particularly worried that the flood gates opened for illegal activity, as international oversight and trade partnerships deteriorate. It opens room for new corruption schemes by the military government. Previously illegal deforested wood by the military would now be put on sale to neighbouring states that fail to question its legitimacy.

Satellite imagery and data provided by Planet Labs, Google Earth and Global Forest Watch, validate concern by environmental expert groups focusing on conflict zones.

The British monitoring group Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) says that deforestation of primary rainforest at the heart of the country spiralled since the military took over. The military junta would have taken advantage of the situation by illegally selling wood to neighbouring countries. CEOBS researchers also make a more direct connection between pre-coup deforestation and the Rohingya genocide.

Satellite data shows large patches of rainforest removed between April and January, this year. Commentators on Twitter say that logging took place in the Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, an ASEAN Heritage Park (ASEAN Heritage Park have unique biodiversity and ecosystems).

January (left) and April (right) images of Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park in Sagaing region.

While the data can visually confirm kilometre-long stretches of rainforest vanishing within the delicate past months, it remains hard to prove a direct link to the military rulers from satellite images alone.

Eoghan Darbyshire, a researcher at CEOBS, the British NGO based in West Yorkshire, says that now the driver is to make money: “For the military government, that’s only now possible because the government collapsed”.

The army in Myanmar, alleged to be responsible for the genocide of the Rohingya people, is known ­to have sold deforested wood to generate additional cash. “It is quite an easy and quick way of getting money” Darbyshire adds.

In recent years [when Myanmar moved more towards democracy] that sort of behaviour stopped and before the coup there was a move towards playing more by the rules. Now with the coup, that’s been all thrown out of the window and is now even more chaotic and incoherent”, he says.

Internationally, the environmental situation in Myanmar seems to be one of the most pressing plights right now. In the short term, it ranks among the biggest environmental risks in conflict zones, Darbyshire confirms.

How long the deforestation will continue in this way is hard to say, he adds.

An investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) of the state of Myanmar’s timber industry before and after the coup corroborates these concerns.

GLAD alerts

What worries researchers is an increase in GLAD alerts. These alerts indicate that a 30 by 30-meter area — around the size of two basketball courts — experiences a disturbance in the forest canopy.

Forest loss has fluctuated since the coup, Faith Doherty at the Environmental Investigation Agency says: “7 weeks, there are reports of high or unusually high number of deforestation alerts compared to previous years, 3 weeks at normal levels, and one week low”.

The reasons for this development vary, Doherty says: “In many cases, it will be the military trying to exploit natural resources, including timber to get funding”.

Since the coup the military-appointed Minister of Natural Resources, Environmental and Conservation discussed increasing the financial income from timber.

Also, the violence inflicted by the military has resulted in reduced monitoring of forests, including by local communities since the coup, she says: “This makes it harder to verify”.

The EIA has doubled down on monitoring illegal timber deliveries from the Sagaing Region in the north and found transports across the land border into China, she says.

This week, the US government imposed tough timber sanctions against the Myanmar military government after the US Treasury said that the timber (and pearl) industry are “key economic resources for the Burmese military regime that is violently repressing pro-democracy protests in the country and that is responsible for the ongoing violent and lethal attacks against the people of Burma, including the killing of children”.

In February, shortly after the coup, experts said that sanctions could add to the risk of further deforestation and that foreign business partners abiding by rules could be replaced by others who may not.

The EIA encourages these sanctions but thinks they don't go far enough and called for additional sanctions from the EU to support the act.

Sales of confiscated timber

I asked Doherty what evidence there is that the military junta sells the confiscated and illegally deforested timber.

According to regulation, all seized illegal timber is auctioned off: “That timber cannot be exported”. All proceeds go to the state budget. “As far as we are aware this is still the case, with the difference now that the military controls the state budget”.

UN’s FAO monitors the country and says it has the highest deforestation rates in the world. The driver until before the coup has been agricultural expansion, power and infrastructure projects, mining and other logging. But now, the military junta may have made things worse. In March, experts raised suspicions that the UN may have suspended climate projects that require working with Myanmar’s military government.

The armed forces, locally known as Tatmadaw, seized over 9,900 tonnes of illegal timber worth around £5.6m (11bn Myanmar Kyat) last year, mainly in the states of Rakhine, Kachin and Shan, local news sources reported. The EAI worries that the military profits from the subsequent sales of seized timber.

Doherty recognises that the military confiscated large amounts of timber including before the coup. But the 9,900 tonnes, she thinks, is an understatement: “We believe that the military has seized more than reported. It is not clear what happened to the timber that is directly seized by the military, she adds.

Where deforestation took place since the coup

Global Forest Watch’s GLAD alerts show that the worst area affected by forest loss in the past months included Shan State, Kachin State, Kayin State, and the Sagaing Region.

In the last four weeks, 255,854 GLAD (deforestation) alerts were detected.

It affected an area of approximately 18,400 hectares. Shan and Kachin State accounted for 51 per cent of all GLAD alerts, according to the data.

Coastal Rakhine state:

2020, the first time deforestation rates increase after years of progress of decline. Forest cover and primary rainforest loss centred around the small town of Ann where Planet images indicate forest removal.

Deforestation in the coastal state of Rakhine (black border) took place before the coup but now with less oversight and a money-making incentive by the military junta, risks for illegal and unsustainable deformation increase. In pink, areas of heavy forest loss, cumulated forest loss between 2018 and 2020 (source: Mapbox, Google Earth Engine, Carto, Planet Labs)
Evidence for deforestation since the coup in the areas around the township of Ann, comparing it before and after the coup (Image: Planet Labs)

Kachin state:

Although forest loss decreased between 2019 and 2020 in this state, there are hotspots that showed more activity. In the vicinity of the 300,000 inhabitants-strong city of Myitkyina, we observe large patches to disappear since January.

Deforestation hotspot in the northern state of Kachin which shares a border with China to its north and east. China was identified as a valid wood and timber business partner. Experts worry it might increasingly ‘fill the void’ [replacing other international partners] and become a buyer and potential investors in commodities like palm oil and timber without minding environmental and ethical considerations.
Recorded change in and around Myitkyina

Experts said that the recording of confiscated timber has been opaque. There is data by the Chinese media. China shares a 2,129 km long border with Myanmar. Seizures are taking place and teak logs are separated and stockpiled by the military.

Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store