Global Policy Forum

Getting to the Roots of Burma's Latest Timber Trade


By Khun Sam

June 18, 2007

Not content with selling huge quantities of timber to China, Burmese businesses are now digging up whole trees and exporting them to Chinese customers who pay up to 100,000 Yuan (US $13,000) for a good specimen. The prized trees are Ye-Htin-Shu (known by their Latin name ‘Podocarpus nerrifolia'), believed by the Chinese to bring good luck. "Wealthy people buy the trees and replant them in their gardens," said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst who lives o¬n the China-Burma border. Trees were also offered as gifts to gain favor with high-ranking officials, he said. The more mature the tree the higher the price. Some of them are 100 years old.

An official of o¬ne Burmese company involved in the sale of trees to China compared the business with jade-trading. "The price depends o¬n the tree's appearance, size and quality," said the official, who works for the Maha-Kywe Company, based in Naung Cho, near Lashio Township. The company has exported about 30 trees to China, and has permission to sell a further 70. Special heavy machinery is employed to dig up the trees, complete with roots, and transport them by road through the border trading town of Muse to Ruili, in China's Yunnan province.

Ye-Htin-Shu are rare trees and grow in lowland and valley areas of Burma's Shan State, near Naung Cho, Kutkhai and Hsipaw Township. They serve a valuable purpose in water and soil preservation, according to Hkun Seng, a Kachin environmentalist who recently conducted field research in northern Shan State. Many Ye-Htin-Shu trees were destroyed because they were clumsily uprooted and inexpertly packed for transport, Hkun Seng said.

The trees are a lucrative source of income not o¬nly for the export companies but for local government officials who man checkpoints o¬n the road to China and demand transit fees, taxes and even bribes before allowing the unusual freight to pass. Traders have to pass through about eight check points between Naung Cho and Muse. The junta's paramilitary militia groups in northern Shan State and about seven ceasefire groups, such as the Kachin Defense Army, are also involved in the business. Some illegal traders bypass the checkpoints at night, others bribe their way through, according to Hkun Seng.

The trade in Ye-Htin-Shu trees began some 10 years ago, according to business sources. Brig-Gen Aung Than Htut, commander of Northeast Command and chairman of Shan State (North) Peace and Development Council and Naypyidaw's Ministry of Forests, have so far approved the export of about 2,000 of the trees, the sources said.

China has launched a reforestation program, "Green Storms," in preparation for the Olympic Games in 2008, but it's not known whether the trade in Ye-Htin-Shu trees is part of this initiative. The Chinese organizing committee and the UN Environmental Program have jointly declared that the 2008 Games will promote and respect a healthier environment. The London-based watchdog Global Witness says more than 1 million cubic meters of timber, about 95 percent of Burma's total timber exports to China, were illegally exported from northern Burma to Yunnan province in 2004. "China takes any natural resources from Burma," said Awng Kyaw Zaw. "Burmese interests, ethnic ceasefire groups, the junta and its militias are selling everything they have in Burma."


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