A history of state forestry in Burma

The politically-fuelled backlash against commercial forestry efforts by governments (often initiated in the past by Western colonial governments) is an interesting aspect of how trees can wander into the realm of politics. Traditionally, forests have been at the centre of many human civilisations over the millennia, enabling forward progression through the sustainable utilisation of forest resources (for construction, fire, husbandry, and so on) under the jurisdiction of the local community (or communities). In this sense, there is a marked link between traditional man and the forest. Subsequently, the intervention of governments in order to commercialise forest management practices so to increase state revenue – originating in Germany, when the University of Freiburg was the first university to offer a formalised education on forestry practice in 1787 – has routinely been met with backlash in many regions of the world, as this usurpatious shift in forest management directly challenges cultural identity. Over the next few blog posts, a few rather lengthy case studies (written over the past six months) will outline how state forestry has brilliantly collided with historic custom and agrarian lifestyles. I truly hope you enjoy them, and if you want a list of all state forestry books I know of (I have a good dozen, from memory) please just ask!

State forestry in Burma (Myanmar)

Prior to Burma becoming a British colony in 1824, the Burmese monarchy had – in spite of the portrayal by the British – a sound forest management regime in place. Principally, because of Burma’s desirable forests of teak (Tectona grandis), which is a timber that is well-suited for the construction of naval vessels, and also buildings, there had been both internal and external demand for such timber for centuries. As a consequence, there was much potential profit involved for the monarchy, and therefore the harvesting and transportation of felled teak was carefully regulated – particularly when such harvesting was for-profit purposes; for the rural forest peasant, regulations were not necessarily as applicable, because of the subsistence use of the timber and the isolation of rural settlements from the (literally) centralised governance of the monarchy. Additionally, in the uncommon instances where the monarchy did seek to enforce forest regulations upon the peasants, such enforcement was met with backlash. Therefore, before the entrance of the British, rural Burmese peasants suffered little intervention from any form of large governing body, and the teak forests were managed with – at least to a degree – their long-term conservation in mind.

Upon the arrival of British rule however, such state-peasant dynamics altered – albeit, not too drastically to begin with. When the British gained control of the region of Tenasserim in 1824, because of the large scale deforestation of Great Britain, the fact that teak was a better timber for naval uses than oak (Quercus robur), the waning importation of oak timber from the Balkans, and the concept of deforestation being synonymous with industrial progression, the British undertook – and also permitted – large-scale deforestation of Tenasserim’s teak forests. Dubbed laissez-faire forestry, felling operations were not at all rational and were in fact quite frenetic, and therefore by 1856 Tenasserim’s teak forests had been irreparably damaged; notably by private organisations who regularly escaped the ineffective enforcement of the basic forest regulations put in place by the British. Such a laissez-faire approach had little impact upon the native peasantry, as they were free to undertake their practices as they did under the rule of the monarchy. In fact, many peasants benefited from this approach economically, as locals were employed to harvest timber, transport it, and also enforce basic forest rules.

A British force arrives in Burma on 28th November 1885, following the third Anglo-Burmese War. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

However, in 1852, having learned from the grave mistake that now plagued the teak forests of Tenasserim, when the British secured the southern province of Pegu, they swiftly moved to enforce much stricter rules upon the management of forests. Spearheaded by Lord Dalhouise, in 1853 all teak forests were declared the property of the state, and extraction of teak was forbidden without explicit permission. Soon after, in 1855, Dalhouise wrote the document entitled Minute of Forest Policy of 1855, and appointed Dietrich Brandis as Forest Superintendent, who formed The Burma Forest Department one year later in 1856. At its core, this new organisation would oversee man’s interaction with Burma’s forests (a panoptic pursuit), and employ the more rational and scientific approach to forestry that had been developed in Germany and France some decades before, with the purpose of significant economic gain from harvesting teak and other tree species. Also at the core of this alteration in direction was the observed wastefulness of the peasantry, in the eyes of the British. Evidently, according to the British, Burmese peasants could not be responsible for managing their forests, as they openly used it inefficiently, or destroyed it unnecessarily.

Whilst the new Forest Department lacked much authority in the years immediately following its inception, by the mid 1860s it grew in potency and by 1885 had tripled in size from its size of 1861. During this development period, the department began to significantly erode the traditional rights of the Burmese peasantry, and from multiple angles. With regards to the practice of shifting cultivation, which saw a peasant farmer routinely clearing new patches of teak forest for cultivation and using the burned remains of the teak as fertiliser, because of its direct impact upon the efficacy of teak harvesting by the state, and its alleged antithetical positioning compared to scientific forestry, the practice was essentially outlawed from 1856 – it was seen as not being an intrinsic right, with only settled agricultural practices being a right as defined by the state.

Subsequently, peasants undertaking such a form of cultivation protested in two ways: through avoidance and resistance. For example, peasants would flee Pegu permanently, or only temporarily after clearing an area for cultivation and crossing the border to Siam when forest officials were in the area, as would they clear teak and entirely destroy evidence of teak ever being there. More boldly, they may simply plead ignorance to forest regulations, if questioned. Such a state of affairs led to, in 1869, the state adopting what was known as taungya forestry, which allowed peasants to clear land for cultivation and, upon such clearance, cultivate their crops within an area of teak that had been planted at the same time. Then, after a period of some years, as the teak regenerated, the cultivators would move on to another forest patch and undertake the same operations.

Modern-day shifting cultivation in Burma, showing how segments of forest have been cleared for agriculture. Source: Burmalink.

The peasants who did not practice shifting cultivation were also impacted by such state regulations in Pegu. Whilst such regulations did not initially impact the general populace, both because only teak extraction was regulated and the Forest Department lacked man power and expertise, by 1875 the state’s classification of other tree species (a total of 14 other species, including Dipterocarpus tuberculatus, Lagerstroemia speciosa, Pterocarpus macrocarpus, Senegalia catechu, and Xylia xylocarpa) as protected from unlicensed felling led to unrest amongst the peasantry.

In essence, not only did this now marked limitation on timber harvesting conflict with the traditional Buddhist way of life, which saw timber used for construction felled only under specific auspicious circumstances, but it also limited their ability to use the forest both as a source of income and for subsistence purposes. Granted, the state did permit peasants to use the forest for reasons to do with subsistence, but such an exclusion from the forests of Pegu at large resulted, unsurprisingly, in backlash. Forms of such backlash from the peasants included illicitly felling trees for their timber, harvesting trees and selling them on the black market to native timber traders, resorting to felling only those trees not protected by the state (which took place to quite significant levels, in some instances), and destroying the property of the Forest Department.

As the Forest Department grew, it also adopted an ever-increasing scientific approach to forestry; this translated over into those employed by the department. Originally, the aim had been for the department to employ local people, though the lack of expertise and associated shortcomings in forest enforcement led quickly to attention being diverted to Europe – notably Germany and France, where forestry was being taught quite rigorously. Therefore, as the department grew in size from 1861 to 1885, whilst local foresters were still locals employed by the state, the higher paid forest conservators and other officials were not native Burmese individuals, which led to unrest even within the Forest Department. In essence, the Burmese foresters were unhappy at the evident glass ceiling within the organisation, and this resulted in the foresters defrauding the Forest Department and falsifying reports.

Come 1881, the state had passed the Burma Forest Act. This new piece of legislation enabled the colonial government to more readily establish ownership of forest lands, and to denote forest reserves where it was deemed pertinent to do so – in essence, the Act allowed for a more extensive and effective state consolidation of Burma’s forests. In Pegu, this led to most of teak forest being classified as a reserve, by 1990. Further north in Upper Burma, which came under British rule following the 1884-86 Anglo-Burmese War, reserves were similarly established (in a bid to standardise forestry practice in Burma), and come 1900 a total of 51% of teak forest area was classed as reserve. Other species of tree, such as Senegalia catechu, which was harvested for its water exudes used for tanning and dyeing, were also protected through the designation of forest reserves.

Unquestionably, because these reserves prohibited traditional practice, such as grazing, shifting cultivation, burning, and the harvesting of timber and collection of firewood, this pursuit of forest brought with it civil unrest amongst the peasantry reliant upon the forest. By-and-large, both the intentional burning of reserves, and then subsequent refusal to co-operate with the extinguishing efforts, were the methods of protest adopted. Furthermore, because Upper Burma had already experienced forest management prior to British rule, the contractors and rulers undertaking forestry operations at the time of a change in the ruling elite – namely the powerful Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Limited (BBTLC) – were uneasy at the desire for the British to remove their rights to harvest timber (notably teak), and therefore after much pressure it was decided that, at least for the BBTLC, private operations could continue under state supervision. Rulers, including the Sawbwas of the Shah region, were marginalised, and thus lost access to their extensive forests.

Cleared compartments like this would have become far less frequent across Burmese forests. Source: East by Southeast.

As the 19th century approached its close, the Forest Department had gained power over much of Burma’s forests – almost all forests had been inventoried. Therefore, when the Burma Forest Act of 1902 was passed, it came as little surprise that the state had begun to further pursue control over forests. Based heavily on the principles of scientific forestry being applied only in exiting forest reserves, allowing those non-reserved area to be maintain by the peasantry at their own discretion, the Forest Department opted to principally use five different European contractors – including BBTLC, though no longer with a monopoly – for forestry operations, on fifteen-year leases. In this sense, the Forest Department would oversee a return to privatisation of forestry, much how it had been prior to 1856.

Unfortunately, by 1909, native contractors accounted for only 23% of the total output from state forestry operations, because of the more favourable stance the European contractors were seen in when it came to issuing leases for forestry operations (mainly because they were larger companies, meaning the Forest Department didn’t need to oversee so many contractors), which led to much animosity between Burmese contractors and the state – this was further exacerbated by 1924, when native contractors were responsible for only 5% of output. Compiled with the almost entire outlawing on shifting cultivation by the 1920s, because of its perceived associations with soil erosion, flooding, and a poor teak crop, and the designation of lowland forests as reserves because of their declining extent within the plains of Burma (agricultural production had increased so markedly – from 800,000 acres in 1982 to 6,000,000 acres in 1906), the situation during the this period led to much protest – namely the illegal extraction of timber, and illegal grazing of cattle. In some cases, 90% of all recorded crime came from the lowlands, where the demands on what little forest remained conflicted with the state’s classification of these forests as protected reserves.

The plight of those in the plains was also picked up by nationalist political movement, such as the General Council of Sangha Sammeggi, who supported local nationalist organisations known as wunthanu athin. These local movements aired the grievances of the plains peasantry, with regards to their inaccessible forest reserves, and their affiliations with national movements gave local voices a national audience. In turn, by the 1920s, nationalist politicians and the middle class were in support of the peasantry in the plains.

In response to this demand for forests to provide the peasantry with what they require, the state came to recognise that commercial forestry operations in reserves could not constitute the exclusive use of the reserved forests of Burma – notably in the lowlands. Therefore, in 1923, after the British colonial government provided the Burmese with partial rule of their country during 1921 and the Whyte Committee subsequently assessed the situation with Burmese forests at length, the Forest Department was handed over to the Burmese, and by 1930 the post of Forest Secretary was filled by a native individual. Thus began the process of ‘Burmanisation’ within the Forestry Department.

However, the actual amount of influence the Burmese had on the Department was slim, at this time – decisions relating to leases to forestry contractors were made in London, and only British officials had the power of appointing new people to the Department. As a consequence, unrest persisted, and forest crimes peaked during the mid 1930s. Come 1937, at the enacting of the Government of Burma Act of 1935, the power of the Burmese to regulate the use of their own forests was accentuated however, though this did not curb protest completely and in 1940 the Forest Department even began a propaganda campaign detailing the benefits of forest conservation through reserves.

A few years later in 1942, such power granted in the 1935 Act was further augmented after the Japanese acquired Burma during World War II and aided with integrating Burmese individuals into the Forest Department under the absence of the British. Having granted them ‘independence’ soon after, upon the return of the British after the end of the war 1945, the state was unable to implement scientific forestry again because of the huge amount of ‘lawlessness’ (relating to what was deemed a forest crime under British rule) in the forests. Notably, many forest reserves in the planes were cleared to make way for agriculture, during this three year period, though more broadly enforcing forest law effectively was simply not feasible; in part, because the Japanese simply ‘looted’ the forests of their timber to fund the war effort – an act which the peasantry mirrored all too zealously, in some scenarios. Curiously, even the Burmese who worked in the Forest Department during this time tried to enforce forest laws, and even sought to ensure that forests were managed as they were prior to the war’s impact on Burma.

The Burmese forests being used as a battleground during World War II. Source: Ibiblio.

After 1948 independence, which marked the conclusion of the period of Burmanisation, forest protests continued; albeit under a different political catalyst. Initially, until 1953, because of significant civil unrest across Burma, the Forestry Department had no forests to maintain – all were in the hands of insurgent groups, and only under armed guard could forest officials practice even the most basic of forestry tasks. Therefore, during this period the Department sought to instead simply plan its approach of once again employing scientific forestry as the core means of forest management following the calming of unrest, after the now entirely Burmese Forestry Department determined the scientific approach introduced by the British was in fact highly beneficial for the state. Soon after in 1954, having witnessed the persistent deforestation of Burma’s forests during this period of unrest (and before), the government sought to – with help from the Forestry Department – reforest 200,000 acres of forest in the more politically stable plains of Pegu.

During the following years, plantations were therefore created with help from willing locals; of which 4,000 were full-time employees and 20,000 part-time employees. In this sense, state forestry provided many local peasants with employment, during a time of political tumult, though such employment was often both mandatory and unpaid. Furthermore, shifting cultivation was once again outlawed in Pegu, with fixed agricultural practices being promoted in its place. In remote hilly areas this enforcement was not successful however, as insurgents resisted the will of the Forestry Department. It wasn’t until 1975, when the Burmese army cleared these hills of insurgents, that the hill forests were regained by the Forest Department, and scientific forestry could once again be practiced and shifting cultivation more effectively prohibited.

Evidently, the hills of Burma were of a different political climate entirely. Owned by insurgent groups, these areas were largely off-limits to the Forest Department, and only at the hands of the army cold they be regained. Because forests were highly valuable assets, notably in terms of their consistent provision of revenue, they were fiercely protected by insurgent groups, and in some respects these groups acted akin to the Forest Department – peasants were taxed for using the forest, and timber was sold to sustain the existence of these groups. For instance, the Karen National Union of Kawthoolei used the forests within the region as their main source of income from the 1960s, and the Kawthoolei Forestry Department created by the Union rivalled the state’s Forest Department, who themselves expanded within the region from a mere handful of staff in the 1950s to 463 during the early 1990s. The battle in this case was for territory, and the territory was the forest.

Following the violent military coup of 1988, spearheaded by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which overthrew the socialist government of the time, the forestry agenda again altered. The desire for short-term profit, because of Burma’s dire financial situation (which had largely persisted from 1948), meant that large-scale forestry operations were politically necessary for SLORC, who swiftly agreed a deal with neighbouring Thailand to log the Thai-Burmese border forests. For Thailand, this deal was also of marked benefit, because in 1988 the state banned all logging within the country after its forests had suffered massive losses at the hands of loggers over the preceding decades. The contractors for such logging activities were all Thai in origin, and therefore Burmese contractors lost out on any potential income from this venture. However, come the close of 1993, because of the sheer extent of illegal activities committed by the Thai loggers, the agreement was suspended and logging halted. Curiously, where Burmese loggers had been given contracts by SLORC and the Forest Department elsewhere in Burma around the same time, illegal logging was also an issue and this led to such agreements also being terminated by 1994. Compiled with the continued encroachment upon Burma’s forests by the peasantry who still sought to ignore forest law, Burma’s forests were still under threat.

At this time, the SLORC government also passed the Forest Law of 1992, which supported the incorporation of social issues into forest management, in addition to broader conversation aims – this new Law was supplemented with the National Forest Policy written by the Forest Department in 1994, which echoed the sentiments of the 1992 Law. However, forest conservation was still the prevailing issue, as was the need for the forest to provide revenue for the state, the Law thus allowed the state to begin doubling the number of forest reserves in the more remote regions of Burma, which had recently been relinquished of insurgent groups and their rule. This aim was supported through the state at the time signing Burma up to various organisations promoting forest conservation, including the International Tropical Timber Organisation. Subsequently, taungya forestry, and shifting cultivation in general, was once again to be outlawed, because it directly conflicted with the aims of rational and scientific forestry, thereby igniting peasant-state tensions for another time. Similarly, the use of forests beyond cultivation was to also be controlled, signalling to any outsider that state forestry and peasant use of the forest are at two ends of a political spectrum associated with resource access and control.

More recent years have in fact seen further bans of forestry within Burma, and to this date the state has banned logging in some areas for the benefit of the forests. In addition, the Burmese Army has set fire to plantations owned by small communities after the communities failed to provide forced labour. This details how the forest is still critical, to this day, and that an attack on the forest is an attack on the community.

This scene might not be so common in some areas of Burma, in 2016/17! Source: Environmental Investigation Agency.

Source: Bryant, R. (1997) The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma. UK: Hurst & Company.

A history of state forestry in Burma

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