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India Should Exercise Caution Over Myanmar Timber Imports

Myanmar timber seen at Dimapur Railway Station, Nagaland. / Credit - Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The confusion over Myanmar timber exports to India was laid to rest last month when the central government in New Delhi informed the Indian border state of Mizoram that timber was not on the restricted list of commodities from Myanmar.

New Delhi’s directive was in response to a letter written by Mizoram governor Hari Babu Khambhampati seeking clarification on the issue of timber imports, following a petition by an association of wood-based industries in the state pushing for the removal of timber from the restricted list of commodities.

India’s Minister of Commerce Piyush Goyal said that only two types of timber – rough sandalwood and rough red sanders – are on the restricted list of imports from Myanmar.

Illicit timber consignments from Myanmar have been seized at several locations in India’s northeast and West Bengal over the past few years. In July, eight trucks were seized in Siliguri, West Bengal and Burmese teak worth 24 million Indian rupees (US$300,000) was confiscated. An official was quoted by the media as saying that at least 50 people were involved in a racket to smuggle timber from Myanmar.

India accounted for an average of 42 per cent of Myanmar’s global timber exports between 2000 and 2015, according to some researchers. In 2013 alone, Myanmar timber worth over US$700 million was exported to India, comprising 31 per cent of all India’s timber imports in that year.

Myanmar timber, especially Burmese teak, is hugely profitable for Indian merchants. Teak is widely available across all the major towns and cities in India’s northeast and also in the big metropolises elsewhere in the country. It can also be bought online via Amazon and Indiamart.

Burmese teak is also in high demand elsewhere in the world. A report by Justice For Myanmar, an advocacy group that monitors Myanmar’s military regime, said that more than 1,700 tons of teak was imported by the United States in 2021, despite sanctions in place since the coup. Another report found 27 Italian traders importing teak in 2021, even though the European Union has prohibited its sale.

Unlike the United States or Europe, though, India and neighboring countries face an adverse environmental impact from Myanmar’s timber exports. Climate change in a neighboring country is bound to have a cascading effect on India, something which has already been underscored by scientists studying the phenomenon.

If some residents and militants of Mizoram districts bordering Myanmar who are engaged in smuggling are to be believed, vast swathes of forests have been wiped out in Myanmar’s Chin State and Sagaing Region, which both border India. Those claims are supported by reports on deforestation in Myanmar published over the past few years.

One estimate says that 1.3 million acres, or two per cent of Myanmar’s tree cover, was lost annually between 2010 and 2015, meaning that Myanmar is experiencing the third-highest rate of deforestation in the world after Brazil and Indonesia. A report by the Asian Development Bank suggests that the major causes of deforestation are timber production and concessions for commercial agricultural land.

Myanmar and India’s northeast are among 36 biodiversity hotspots in the world. The Indo-Burma region, which is among the biggest of these fragile zones, covers Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, as well as the North India River Plain, the Brahmaputra valley and parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

India is considered to be very vulnerable to climate change. The northeast of the country is already being impacted by the phenomenon, as evidenced by the erratic rainfall pattern in the region. This frontier zone has also witnessed severe depletion of its own tree cover over the past few years, accounting for over 70 per cent of tree cover lost in India between 2001 and 2018.

In all likelihood, timber exports from Myanmar to India will increase given India’s current construction boom. Experts project a compound annual growth rate of more than six per cent from 2023 to 2026 for the construction sector, with India tipped to remain among the top five largest construction markets in the world.

Trade between India and Myanmar, both legal and illicit, supports large numbers of people on both sides of the frontier. Some of those people are militants who are either directly engaged in smuggling or profit from it by imposing taxes on contraband passing through their areas. Timber, along with betel nut and methamphetamines, is among the most profitable items being smuggled.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.