Myanmar is on the verge of losing it’s a once thick forest of mangroves, thanks to the decades-long illegal charcoal trade.
Though it is illegal to produce charcoal for commercial uses in Myanmar, the charcoal business is flourishing with the growing illegal charcoal trading business.
The trade happens mostly in southeast Asian countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Among all, the business is a thriving one in Thailand as they’re the biggest importers of Myanmar’s illegal mangrove charcoal.
Charcoal production was put to an end in Thailand in the late 1990s by the government. However, demand still grew.
Thus, to fulfill the growing demands of charcoal, Thailand’s charcoal tycoons turned to Myanmar and it’s thick and luscious Mangrove forest.
But now, due to over-exploitation, the mangrove forests of Myanmar’s southern coastal province of Tanintharyi is in a major threat.
However, this is not the first time the mangrove forests have faced threats. Previously, Bogale, a township in the Ayeyarwady Delta was the key supplier of illegal charcoal.
But, ever since the mangrove forest declined tremendously, the production was no longer a possibility. Therefore, it shifted to the southern coastal areas.
The mangrove forest was one of the most prized possessions of Myanmar. They might not have the bodily features of other trees, but they have so many important functions
For starters, mangrove trees function as a nursery for ocean fisheries and is a great way for coastal villagers to make a living.
It also acts as a wall for extreme weather events and an amazing shield against carbon emission. In fact, an acre of mangrove forest can buffer approximately four times more carbon than an equal area of rainforest.
But, due to reasons like illegal charcoal production and rice production, Myanmar, since 2000, has been annually losing 2.2 percent of its mangrove forests.
In fact, it has the highest rate of mangrove loss in all of Southeast Asia.
Although producing and importing charcoal is illegal both in Myanmar and Thailand, it is still a booming business.
According to a 2017-2018 Mongabay investigation, approximately $10 million worth of charcoal was smuggled from Katha, a town in northern Myanmar into China.
On top of that, people are able to earn 16 times more money selling charcoal to warehouses in Thailand.
For the owners, it’s a way to fulfill the growing demands without having to pay taxes to the government. They’d also keep the suppliers chained in a debt trap so the suppliers won’t sell the product elsewhere.
And for the labors, it is easy money. Despite the legal reasons, producing charcoal is less risky and more profitable than fishing.
And since they’re already in debt, fishing alone can’t let them survive the difficulties they face on an everyday basis.
Not a single illegal business would sustain and thrive if there weren’t any legal loopholes.
Even though the government of Myanmar made timber logging illegal in the country back in 2014, there is a lack of law enforcement by the forestry officials.
This is what still allows the illegal trading of charcoal inside and outside Myanmar.
It is easier for the smugglers to cross the checkpoints as the forestry officials patrolling the area can be easily bribed with things like cell phones or televisions.
The main reason behind the bribery and corruption is that the officials don’t earn enough money from their jobs. And taking bribes is like making extra money on the side.
The real question to we need to ask everyone involved in this illegal act is, is it all worth it?
Is cutting down valuables forests that protect you from different calamities just to make money worth it?
And what happens after you run out of mangroves? There is no doubt that people will come out with other alternatives. But what about the ecosystem that you completely destroyed that will not be the same for hundreds of years?
If this illegal activity keeps on going, Myanmar would more likely become the next Easter Island. As it will run out of all the valuable trees and forests.