China border logjam – The beginning or the end of action against illegal timber exports in northern Burma?

Press Release: Strictly embargoed till 24.01.06 03:30 am GMT

Press Conference 24 Jan, 10.30 am at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Bangkok [1]

The destructive logging and vast timber trade on the China-Burma border have come to a near halt over the past four months.

Last October Global Witness [2] exposed the staggering extent of illegal timber exports to China from northern Burma, one of the world's most bio-diverse areas. The value of this illicit timber trade has been estimated at US$ 250 million per year. Global Witness found that more than 95% of Burmese wood exports to China was illegal [3].

Following investigations earlier this month Global Witness can reveal a significant decline in these activities. In Kachin State the Burmese military regime appears to have banned logging and timber transports and has suppressed the illegal cross-border timber exports to China. In recent months the timber industry has come to a near standstill in regime-controlled areas. It has likewise decreased in areas administered by Kachin ceasefire groups [4].

“After years of impunity for logging companies and denial by the Burmese and Chinese authorities, action to combat illegal and predatory logging in northern Burma is long overdue,” said Mike Davis of Global Witness. “Questions remain, however: is this the start of a sustainable approach to forest management or merely a shake-up in control of one of Kachin State’s most precious resources?” [5]

The evidence thus far is conflicting. In a welcome move towards greater openness, the Burmese Forest Minister recently acknowledged some of the massive illegal exports across the border to China [6]. However Global Witness has also received eyewitness reports that in the last week scores of Chinese loggers have returned to the northern Burmese forests. Timber trucks are again crossing the border.

These mixed signals are fuelling concerns that the suspension of the timber trade may be aimed less at preserving the forests than undermining ceasefire groups that derive much of their income from timber taxes. Global Witness calls on the Burmese government to allay these fears. Aid and development initiatives aimed at reducing the reliance of local economies on unsustainable natural resource exploitation should not be hindered. The regime must demonstrate a real commitment to the long-term interests of the local population.

Of equal importance is the role of the Chinese government, which has yet to acknowledge the role of Chinese firms in the degradation of Burma’s forests [7].

“China is seeking a leadership role in the region; here is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to peaceful and responsible co-existence with its neighbours,” said Mike Davis. “Action to regulate the illegal timber trade on the Burmese side of the border can only succeed if matched by corresponding measures within China. The Chinese authorities stand to gain great international credit by helping to preserve Burma’s forests for the benefit of its people. We urge them to seize the moment.”

For press enquiries: Global Witness at +66 571 499 21 (Thailand) or +44 207 561 6396 (London)


[1] The press conference is open to the public. Address: FCCT, Penthouse, Maneeya Center, 518/5 Ploenchit Road, Patumvan, Bangkok.

[2] Global Witness is a UK-based non-governmental organisation which focuses on the link between conflict, corruption and natural resource exploitation. Please see for further details.

[3] For further details, see the report ‘A Choice for China: Ending the destruction of Burma’s northern frontier forests’, published October 2005,

[4] After more than four decades of civil war the Burmese military government entered into ceasefire agreements with 22 armed ethnic opposition groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In northern Burma the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and its armed wing the KIA is the largest ceasefire group.

[5] The logging ban has been implemented after direct instructions from the top of the Burmese regime by its new northern commander Major General Ohn Myint. The former northern commander Major General Maung Maung Swe was transferred in late August 2005 reportedly following investigations into corruption and mismanagement linked to logging and gold-mining concessions. (Source: Global Witness interviews; September-October 2005, January 2006.)

[6] In October 2005, in direct response to Global Witness’ report ‘A Choice for China’ the governments of both Burma and China publicly denied that any illegal timber trade took place between the two countries. (Sources: ‘Logging Cos Said Fleecing Myanmar Forests’, Associated Press; 19 October 2005 and ‘Press Release’, London Embassy of the Government of Myanmar; 19 October 2005.)

On January 5 2006, the Burmese Forest Minister Aung Thein publicly admitted that “Annually, more than 100,000 tonnes of teak and other precious hardwoods are illegally extracted from Kachin and Shan states in northern Myanmar and smuggled into China”. Global Witness estimates that the total illegal trade (in hardwood, teak and softwood) is much bigger than this, and amounts to a minimum of 1,000,000 cubic meters per year. (Sources: The Myanmar Times ‘Bid to end illegal timber trade’ (Vol 15, no. 300); 16-22 January 2006. Yangon Times (Vol 1, no.16); January 19-25 2006. Global Witness, ‘A Choice for China: Ending the destruction of Burma’s northern frontier forests’; October 2005.)

[7] In November 2005, the governments of Burma and China announced increased cooperation on forestry issues including curbing the illegal timber trade, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding. However, no further details of this agreement have been made public. (Sources: ‘Minister for Forestry back from China’, New Light of Myanmar; 27 November 2005 and Yunnan Daily; 25 November 2005.)

In November 2005, the Chinese State Forestry Administration (SFA) participated in the ‘Europe and North Asia Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (ENA FLEG)’ conference in St. Petersburg which was aimed at addressing illegal logging and associated forest crimes in the region. While the participation of the Chinese government in international initiatives to combat illegal logging is encouraging, substantial measures to curb the unsustainable timber trade between Burma and China have still not been implemented by the Chinese authorities.