By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Myanmar's military coup and a potential ramp up in trade boycotts by foreign governments and business could fuel the risk of deforestation in the Asian nation, which is likely to turn to investors lacking environmental standards, green groups warned.
Myanmar's army toppled the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi this month, ending a decade-long democratic transition during which international companies entered the market after earlier sanctions were lifted.
But since the coup, the United States, Britain, and Canada have reimposed sanctions on Myanmar's ruling generals. The European Union is expected to discuss following suit on Monday.
Some corporations, meanwhile, have broken ties as human rights activists and consumers called for a stronger response.
Japanese drinks giant Kirin Holdings, for example, said it was cutting links with a military-owned conglomerate in Myanmar.
Thomas Enters, an Asia-Pacific forestry consultant who has previously worked in Myanmar for the United Nations, said Western business interests would likely be replaced by regional backers, as seen in other places like Cambodia.
"Other countries filled the void," Enters told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, listing China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia as buyers or potential investors in commodities like palm oil and timber in Myanmar.
"Their interest in socio-economic impacts, in human rights, is much lower," he said. "The concern for the environment in big [investment] projects will definitely go down [in Myanmar]."
About 70% of Myanmar's people live in rural areas and rely on the Southeast Asian country's estimated 29 million hectares (72 million acres) of forests to provide for their basic needs and services.
Myanmar's forests are one of its most valuable natural resources but have been plundered by logging, which helped fund the former military regime that ran the country for 49 years before an unsteady transition to democracy began in 2011.
The poverty-stricken country has one of the world's highest deforestation rates, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, driven by agricultural expansion, infrastructure and power projects, mining, and logging.
Other deforestation factors include poor law enforcement, weak governance and institutions, corruption, organized crime, ethnic conflict, and limited land rights, forestry experts say.
Most remaining natural forests in Myanmar are situated near borders, particularly along those with Thailand and China.
If international economic sanctions get tougher, they could push the military to allow logging activities to ramp up in a bid to boost government coffers, as happened after a US-imposed import ban in the early 2000s, environmentalists said.
Kevin Woods, a senior policy analyst for Washington-based nonprofit Forest Trends, noted "great concern" that new drivers of deforestation would emerge, while forest monitoring, governance, and management mechanisms are dissolved.
"Historically, forests in Myanmar had been abysmally managed and protected under the military junta, especially during their last decade of complete rule in the 2000s," said Woods, adding any rise in ethnic conflict could also hinder forest protection.
But Enters said already extensive deforestation could limit the risk, noting a lot of Myanmar's forest "is already gone."
Meanwhile, any new trade sanctions coming from Western countries "are far less influential than they used to be," he added.
Vietnam, India, and China are key customers for Myanmar's commodities, while Malaysia and Thailand are looking to invest in palm oil plantations there, he said.
Last year, Myanmar inked dozens of deals with China to speed up infrastructure projects as part of Beijing's Belt and Road initiative to boost global trade.
In 2016, Myanmar introduced a ban on its lucrative logging operations to slow deforestation, but illegal logging still thrived in many border areas, forestry groups said.
Myanmar also joined the UN REDD+ programme, a scheme that makes payments to countries successful in forestry conservation.
But momentum has slowed in recent years, as the country prioritized infrastructure investment and trade, according to green groups.
Money for the Military?
An international timber trade ban on Myanmar now would likely drive the industry underground, while blanket sanctions could hurt Myanmar's people, environmentalists said.
They urged the military to allow civil society groups to continue to monitor and protect forests and Indigenous communities.
The army may try to sell large stockpiles of illegally logged teak seized earlier by authorities, said Faith Doherty, forest team leader at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
"Since Feb. 1, when the military took over the country, anybody doing business in the [timber] sector is going to be enriching a military regime," said Doherty, who urged timber-buying countries to tighten their import regulations. "Until the military is removed from controlling natural resources in Myanmar, I would say, 'Don't buy.'"
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)