KNU encouraging logging free-for-all in advance of DKBA offensive

October 10, 2008

HURFOM:The Karen National Union (KNU) is slashing logging restrictions in territory it controls near Three Pagodas Pass, on the Thai-Burma border. The change in timber policy comes before the KNU is expected to retreat in the face of a coming offensive by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

Timber stands in the Makate and Kyunchaung forests, respectively nine and thirty kilometers from the Thai-Burma border, have been opened for free-access logging, say loggers, sources in ethnic political parties and local villagers. Both forests are in Thupalaryar District, currently under the control of KNU Brigade 6.

Logging in both areas marks significant changes in KNU forestry policy. In years past, logging operations in both forests were permitted only from January until May, with exceptions made for continuing operations or community timber harvesting for projects like schools, monasteries, churches and bridges.

Previously, only large timber companies like Thailand based Sia Hook could purchase logging contracts. In an interview in mid September, Nai Maut, a logger working in Makate, reported that the KNU typically charged 100,000 baht for permission to log fifty tons.

This year, the price of logging access has been drastically reduced. According to a logger interview in Three Pagoda Pass three weeks ago, the KNU had reduced charges to just 50,000 to 80,000 baht for rights to harvest stands in Makate and Kyunchaung.

According to sources interviewed more recently, last week the KNU appears to have cut fees altogether. Captain Htat Nay, of Bridge 6, told IMNA that loggers are now harvesting timber from Kyunchaung Forest without having to purchase advance permission from the KNU. Makate is open as well, says the owner of a logging company based in Three Pagoda Pass. A former official in the KNU Forestry Department confirmed both sources. Logging trucks still have to pay at KNU checkpoints, but loggers report that the fees have been reduced.

Importantly, not only are loggers free to operate without having to purchase permission, but they are being allowed to log virtually without limits. Restrictions on the minimum size of harvestable trees have been loosened. In the past, loggers were prohibited from cutting trees less than ten centimeters across. Trunks with a diameter of just over seven centimeters, barely larger than a can of soda, are now eligible for harvest. Tree species other than teak and ironwood, once off limits to loggers in an attempt to maintain at least a modicum of forestland, can now also be cut.

The KNU is permitting a wider array of actors to participate in the logging operations. In Magate, where contracts were once granted to only large companies, now anyone can log, including villagers, says Captain Htat Nay. In Kyunchaung, large companies are currently not allowed to log, the captain says, but villagers and smaller companies are being granted unlimited access.

The difference between the types of companies allowed to lob in the two forests appears to be nominal and will likely have little affect on the rate at which timber is harvested, for the small businesses often work for larger operations.

According to the captain, the KNU Forestry Department estimated the Magate Forest to be 50,000 acres and home to 150,000 tons of unharvested hardwoods, including teak and ironwood. Kyunchaung is thought to be 20,000 acres and contain 500 tons.

It is unclear why KNU forestry policy has changed. Some sources speculated that the changes are related to an expected offensive by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which split from the KNU in 1994 and is now unofficially allied with Burma’s military government.

The DKBA has been preparing for an offensive into KNU areas since at least August, reported the Irrawaddy last week. According to a source in Payatung village, near Kyunchaung, the KNU has explained that it will soon leave the Kyunchaung area rather than fight a Karen-on-Karen conflict with the DKBA.

“I think the KNU is about to leave this area and wants to earn as much as it can before it goes,” says a source in Kyunchaung village. “They’ll earn a lot of money if they let logging continue like this, but the trees will be gone in a few months.” The source said he spoke with a highly placed KNU official, who told him that the new rules are an attempt to extract all possible revenue from the territory before it is occupied by the DKBA. The source, however, speculated that the new policy is as much an attempt to prevent the DKBA from profiting from remaining timber as it is an attempt to earn revenue for the KNU.

The source in Kyunchaung village seemed unimpressed with the actions of armed groups in general, and accused the KNU, DKBA and Burmese army of caring more about exploiting natural resources than the people.

This sentiment was echoed by a villager in Kyo Hablu, near Makate, who said, “If the KNU continues to allow logging like this, we will face disaster. We will have floods and the weather will be even hotter in the coming hot season. When the trees are gone nothing can live in the forest. How can we survive?”

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