Reuters Op-Ed: To avoid the “conflict trap,” Myanmar should protect its forests

By Michael Jenkins and Art Blundell | Forest Trends — Peace-builders should work to take care of the country’s forests rather than exploit them

Transitions from war are tough. When grievances smolder and economies fail to recover, most countries fall into a “conflict trap” and war resumes. To escape the trap, post-conflict governments often exploit forests, minerals, and other natural resources to jump-start war-torn economies.

But instead of leading to boom-times, weak governance frequently leads to corruption and an abuse of the country’s natural resources, all of which exacerbate tensions. Rather than rushing to open up a country’s natural resources, peace-builders should work to protect them.

Myanmar is at just such a watershed moment. Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide gave her National League for Democracy (NLD) a strong mandate for reform. While there is much to be done on all fronts, the new government–and their international partners–must include a focus on forests in their dialogue on reform.

Forest management in the past has been marked by corruption and mismanagement as Myanmar’s generals were accused of granting cronies the rights, or “concessions,” to log teak and clear forests, including for the expansion of commercial agriculture, in exchange for money needed to prop up the military regime.

This “ceasefire capitalism” enflamed grievances with ethnic groups that lay claim to, and depend on, these forests for their livelihoods. The scramble to allocate forest-use rights produced overlapping claims, creating legal uncertainty over who has the right to work in a given area.

About a third of Myanmar’s population depend on forests for their livelihoods, and effectively managed forests could make a significant contribution to these livelihoods, and strengthen the political and economic reform processes. While Myanmar’s Forest Department has already taken the first step by placing a moratorium on logging, unfortunately the NLD cabinet recently decided to lift the sanctions in the new year.

Instead, the Forest Department should maintain the moratorium and tie it to a larger program of forest-reform based on environmental peacebuilding. Regional grievances explode around perceived injustices such as land grabs for forestry and agricultural concessions. Factions access money from the illegal exploitation of natural resources, raising the likelihood that grievance—or sheer opportunism and greed—will erupt into armed conflict.

Uncertainty around overlapping land and logging claims kills investment and the economic activity crucial to escaping the conflict trap. Elsewhere, as in Indonesia, we have already seen how a corrupt forest sector bank-rolled election campaigns, undermining the transition to democracy. For true change to take root, the conditions that prevent it must first be addressed.

There is clarity to this logic, as well as precedent. A decade ago, the United Nations sanctioned Liberia’s “blood diamonds” and its timber – the sale of which provided the revenues that contributed to funding the recurring war in West Africa. Before the timber sanctions were lifted, the Security Council required that not only the Government of Liberia reform the sector to gain government control of the forests, but also that revenue could not fuel further conflict. Revenues from the sale of timber would need to be “used for legitimate purposes for the benefit of the Liberian people, including development.”

The Security Council held firm to these conditions. First, the Liberian government reviewed all the logging concessions and concluded that not one could meet the minimum legal standards. Based on this finding, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared all concessions null and void. The review was followed by a series of reforms that satisfied the UN Security Council’s objective that past illegal actions would not be repeated in a way that might threaten the peace. More than a decade later, Liberia is still at peace. Considering the conflict trap as it has played out time and again elsewhere, this is no mean feat.

In Myanmar, however, discussions relating to the transition to democratic rule have barely addressed the management of natural resources, even though the country’s economy is resource-dependent and many of the tensions that drove the war are deeply rooted in control over this wealth. According to the Myanmar Peace Monitoring database, of the 15 ceasefire agreements with the different armed ethnic groups, only five even mention logging, and these five only focus on allowing the timber trade to continue rather than addressing underlying issues of mismanagement and corruption.

Recognizing widespread mismanagement in the forest sector where illegal logging practices have long posed a threat to national security within the country, the Myanmar government last August imposed a moratorium on all logging until March. But a suspension that lasts one logging season is unlikely to change much of anything. In order to drive real change, the Forest Department must do what the Security Council did in Liberia: tie the moratorium to reform. As a first step, a concession review will help the public understand how the forestry sector operated to the detriment of the citizens of Myanmar.

This knowledge will help build a constituency for change that rejects “business as usual.” It will help build the “political will” to drive political and business elites to enact the reforms that they might otherwise resist. International partners can help apply pressure, and consumers–importers of timber– can reinforce the reforms by complying with the moratorium, and, once it is lifted, by trading only with legal operators.

Tying the logging moratorium to real long-lasting reform will strengthen governance, especially the protection of local rights. Rather than undermine development, a reformed forest sector will help Myanmar avoid the conflict trap and put the country on a path to peace. If the drivers of conflict, like natural resources, are not addressed in the peace-building process, failure is all too likely. Seizing the opportunities and managing such challenges, however, can contribute to peace building.

Michael Jenkins is president and CEO of Forest Trends. Art Blundell is an advisor to Forest Trends.

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.