Photo by Christian Junker, Flickr/cc.
Approximately 43% of Myanmar territory is covered by forests. But between 2010 and 2015, about 8.6% of the country’s tree cover were lost, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In 2015, the FLEGT inception workshop took place and Myanmar’s FLEGT process began. But today the continuation of the informal preparatory phase is uncertain.
The UK Department for International Development (DFID), which has been the main source of funding to support Myanmar’s preparations for FLEGT VPA negotiations, has refocused its activities in response to the crisis in Rakhine State. As a result, the UK Secretary of State for International Development decided to suspend DFID’s support, effective 31 December 2018. Supported activities will be stopped by 30 November.
The Myanmar Government has applied for interim funding from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) EU FLEGT programme, but this is not seen as a long-term solution. Activities proposed to be covered by FAO grants include keeping the newly established multi-stakeholder group (MSG) going, maintaining a FLEGT secretariat, and training stakeholders in verifying and monitoring the chain of custody (CoC) of timber from natural managed forests, from forest to export.
The main role of the MSG, which at the national level comprises nine members each from government, civil society and the private sector, is to prepare Myanmar’s negotiating positions. Since the last update, the group has been formally established and similar sub-national groups have been set up in all of the country’s 15 states and regions. However, CSOs in Kayah – Myanmar’s smallest state – have so far decided not to participate in that state’s MSG.
With DFID support, Myanmar’s current CoC process has been defined and sample documents that need to be completed at each step have been reproduced and translated into English. This “dossier” describes all 30 steps from assigning the annual timber harvest, felling by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE, a state monopoly), sales to private sector operators, and processing and export of wood products. It will facilitate both verification of legal compliance by independent bodies and monitoring by CSOs. Verification that the process for each shipment has been correctly carried out, and that shipments have not been contaminated by illegal timber at any point, may be used by EU operators to demonstrate due diligence, as required by the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR).
The publication of the dossier has improved transparency, showing what documents are needed to cover each step, making them available to operators and verification bodies and allowing CSOs to monitor compliance. Now it is critical to train those responsible for implementing the system, verifying compliance and monitoring implementation.
Although the EUTR has provided an economic incentive to open CoC processes, this so far affects only timber from natural managed forests, which is available for processing for export. The gain in transparency is therefore limited. Since timber from forest conversion – to agricultural or hydroelectric use, for instance – is now intended only for the domestic market, the incentive for greater transparency in these supply chains, including prescribed environmental and social protection when converting forest land to these uses, is still lacking.
Indeed, a fundamental contribution that the VPA process could make to improving governance, if carried forward, would be to stimulate clarification and reform of land tenure and traditional rights. Although a new land use policy was adopted in 2016, so far no new legislation supports its application. By contrast, a law on Virgin, Vacant and Fallow Land (VVFL) considers ungazetted land ‘vacant’; this has been amended in a way that fails to improve, and likely weakens the position of traditional occupants. While Parliament has passed a new forest law in 2018 giving communities stronger rights to forest lands and allowing them to commercialise the timber they sell domestically, how this interacts with wider land tenure issues remains uncertain.
The future of the VPA process in Myanmar is tenuous. The Government, private sector and civil society wish to continue working towards a VPA, but in the current political climate, the prospect of official negotiations is seen as remote. Establishment of the MSG is the only key milestone achieved towards preparing for negotiations; work on a legality definition has not started, although the CoC dossier could provide a starting point. The FAO has yet to decide on the grants applied for but, even if secured, such funding would only be shortterm, carrying the process forward perhaps half a year. A more stable solution is needed.
Last updated in December 2018.
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