Burma's virgin teak forests being ravaged by junta and rebels

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The Independent Online

Swaths of virgin teak forests in Burma have been cut down causing ecological destruction on a vast scale, an investigation by an international watchdog has found.

Swaths of virgin teak forests in Burma have been cut down causing ecological destruction on a vast scale, an investigation by an international watchdog has found.

Global Witness, a London-based advocacy group, blames rampant logging on the country's military junta, insurgent groups and neighbouring China and Thailand. The group says money earned by exploiting timber from Burma, which has nearly two-thirds of the world's teak reserves, is used to sustain the ruling generals in power during international sanctions.

It warns that sanctions and cuts in foreign aid put pressure on Burma's teak reserves - the so-called "brown gold" that drew British empire-builders to the region in the 1800s - because the cash-starved junta needed logging to generate foreign exchange.

The report says the regime "remains resolutely in power, sustained by its control over natural resources, in particular timber. In the absence of any new initiatives such a state of affairs is likely to remain until Burma's natural resources are completely exhausted."

Global Witness argues that isolationist policies towards Burma have been counterproductive. Without advocating concessions to the regime, it calls for engagement because the effects of "unsustainable exploitation" of Burma's natural resources are so fundamental they cannot be put on hold.

The generals have turned to "resource diplomacy", the watchdog says, allowing resource-hungry neighbours such as China and Thailand access to the nation's natural wealth in exchange for political, financial and military support.

Official data from Burma show timber exports of between 700,000 and 800,000 cubic metres in recent years, but the report cites "unrecorded exports" of more than double this amount.

The report, based on research in 2001, says Burmese army units are conducting their own logging operations, and transporting the timber using forced labour. The military is handing out permission for both legal and illegal logging, and dispensing the rights to raise revenue on it through taxation, it says.

Logging revenues have been used by the regime and ethnic insurgents alike to perpetuate long-running armed conflict throughout the country, Global Witness says.

It warns that the Chinese are putting further pressure on resources by building roads and employing tens of thousands of Chinese labourers to extract timber and transport it across the border to furniture factories in China.

The report states: "The wealth and power derived from the control of the resource base has corrupted individuals, and it has been used to manipulate foreign relations and to ensure internal stability and security. It has also enabled all sides in the conflict to promote their political ambitions through violent means.

"What could, and should, have been used to develop a post-colonial Burma has instead torn the country apart."

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