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Logging Burma's frontier forests

Resources and the regime

Uses satellite and field data to assess the impact of unsustainable logging on Burma's forests and establishes a link between logging policy, deforestation, and the political violence that has plagued the country in recent years.

Executive Summary

Burma holds more than half of mainland Southeast Asia's closed forest, and is often called "the last frontier of biodiversity in Asia." Having lost virtually all of their original forest cover, Burma's neighbors -- China, India, and Thailand -- rely increasingly on Burma as a source of timber. Most of the regional timber trade is illegal and, increasingly, these forests are being logged to support military action at the expense of human development needs such as health and education. This report focuses on the environmental implications of logging in these areas and on the political and economic forces behind this logging.

The report does not argue against logging per se. History shows that countries liquidate a portion of their natural capital to build the roads, schools, hospitals, and other service s needed to develop their human resources (World Bank, 1997). The World Bank estimates that human resources form the dominant share of wealth, even in low-income countries, and that failure to invest proceeds from wealth-generating activities (e.g., logging) in a country's human resources leads inexorably to impoverishment. This is the course that Burma appears to be following. According to the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, defense spending has increased, and health and education spending have decreased, both in real terms and as shares of government disbursements, since the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was formed in September 1988. In fact, the ratio of military to social service expenditures is by far the highest in the region.

Instead of arguing against logging itself, the report makes the following points. First, properly managed, Burma's forest resources can make a substantial contribution to the country's development through timber production, tourism, and watershed management. Second, in the past 30 years, Burma's forests have suffered from unsustainable logging -- much of it illegal. Since 1988, the trend has accelerated, most sharply in the border areas. Third, the long-term conservation of Burma's extraordinary biodiversity will require a degree of local management to ensure the implementation of policies that will be respected and supported by the population.

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