Acute competition to access valuable resources in forested areas in Myanmar has, amongst other factors, contributed to large-scale deforestation and environmental degradation. This has had disastrous consequences for local communities dependent upon these forests for food, water, fuel, shelter and income.
Undemocratic governance and management of forest resources have fuelled political grievances, and the perception of unequal access and distribution of benefits from the exploitation of timber sustain resentment and tensions, thus giving little incentive from affected parties to then build sustainable peace.
For this reason, and in a country such as Myanmar, still heavily affected by conflict, any international initiative looking at combating illegal logging and deforestation, such as Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) and Reduce Emissions from the Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), needs to be highly sensitive to the local context and must be conducted in a manner that doesn’t exacerbate existing tensions.
Forest areas are prone to conflict
Myanmar is one of the most natural resource-rich countries in Southeast Asia. It is particularly well known for its precious timber resources such as teak and other valuable hardwoods. Illegal logging and the destruction of forests for agriculture purpose have been rampant, with the country losing almost a fifth of its forest cover between the years 1990 and 2010.
Kachin State, which borders China’s Yunnan province, is such a place where both sides of the conflict have benefited from illegal timber trade. Trucks smuggling timber illegally through China and thereby crossing Kachin State have been taxed for years by both the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed group opposing the Myanmar government, and by troops from the national military, fuelling the protracted conflict between the parties.
One of the many grievances existing between the government and other armed groups in Myanmar is the capture of the lucrative timber market by the former military government and crony companies, depriving local communities from accessing the market and its benefits.
Poor forest governance and management, insecure livelihoods and grievances
Whilst attempting to grasp the underlying grievances about access to forest resources, it is important to understand that it is not only a timber issue, as people also rely more broadly on forests, for instance the harvesting and utilisation of Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) for subsistence and income generation.
Forest ecosystems bring much more value than timber trade, and are particularly important for forest-farm communities within Myanmar (watershed protection key for rice paddy system for example). In Myanmar, an estimated 70% of the rural population has to depend heavily on forests for their basic needs (fuel, water, household materials, fodder, food etc.).
Given the important contribution of the forest sector to millions of livelihoods, how forests are used and managed is critical. The benefits of community-based forest management (CFM) are now recognised as critical in order to reduce illegal logging and, therefore, contribute to a more sustainable forest management.
However, historic patterns of forest land use, revenue distribution, and decision-making, have for long disadvantaged local communities contributed significantly to grievances and conflicts. Even if ongoing reforms of forest legislation in Myanmar gear in favour of greater community control over forest use and management, there is still a lot to do.
In fragile places, tackling deforestation can either make conflict or peace
Initiatives aimed at combating illegal logging and deforestation in Myanmar can yield the multiple benefits of reducing poverty, fostering economic development, improving the rule of law, encouraging environmental sustainability and building peace. However, to achieve this, they have to be conducted carefully, particularly in a country still undergoing armed conflict and in a phase of negotiating a difficult and controversial peace process.
Myanmar is an interesting example of the complexities of achieving these multiple objectives. Environmental rehabilitation and conservation interventions, carbon sequestration projects such as REDD+, and initiatives trying to promote legal and governance reforms in the timber trade such as the European Union (EU) backed FLEGT process, all try to combat the plague of deforestation and preserve forests as climate change unfolds.
The FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process has great potential to improve forest governance and management, and presents many opportunities for peacebuilding, as it provides a platform for stakeholders to table their issues, such as discussing what constitutes legality in terms of timber production, and the role of different stakeholders, including forest reliant communities, within regulating and monitoring timber trade related issues.
From a peacebuilding perspective, in places where there is a complex relationship between violent conflict and deforestation, any sustainable, long-term effort to tackle the illegal timber trade and deforestation must be informed by an understanding of these links. This starts by ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in consultations, willing to participate in the negotiation forum and able to speak at the table.
This is especially important in Myanmar, in order to avoid exacerbating the sense of marginalisation and exclusion that is felt by many in the ethnic states of Myanmar, which potentially risks undermining the peace process, and possibly fuel further conflict.
Linking natural resource governance, economic reform and peace process in Myanmar
There can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain people’s livelihoods are damaged or grabbed. This is why the non-governmental organisation International Alert believes that peace, and conflict-sensitive forest governance and management is necessary to reduce deforestation and illegal logging over the long-term, which in return will lead to more sustainable, long-term economic benefits for all communities depending on natural resources for their livelihoods.
In Myanmar, natural resource governance arrangements are some of the most important issues to be negotiated in the nationwide peace process, for the sake of peace-building and for the sake of sustainable forest management.
In order to promote peaceful and sustainable development in this country, it is therefore crucial to look at the interconnected issues of natural resource management, forestry governance and peace.
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