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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 1001

(Question No. 1373)

Senator Chamarette asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, upon notice, on 9 May 1994:

  With reference to growing concern about the increased rates of logging in tropical forests in Burma:

  (1) Has the Minister any knowledge of the State Law and Order Restoration Council selling logging concessions to private companies and foreign governments since it seized power in the 1980s.

  (2) Which countries are involved in the purchase of such concessions, and are any Australian companies involved.

  (3) Does the Government have any assessment of the scope of such concessions and the amount of clear felling which has occurred to date.

  (4) What effect has this logging had on the various ethnic communities within Burma and is the Government aware of any forced relocations as a result of the logging programs.

  (5) What effect has this logging had on the natural environment of Burma.

  (6) What effect has the logging had on the viability of village life for the ethnic communities within Burma.

Senator Gareth Evans —The answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows:

  (1) The forestry policy of the Myanmar Government does not provide for the sale of timber concessions and, with the exception of the Thai/Myanmar border area, no foreign entity has been authorised to harvest forest resources inside Myanmar. The practice of private sector tendering for approved harvesting of timber other than teak, which was reintroduced in 1988 following exclusion of the private sector from exploitation of forest resources for many years, was brought to an end in 1993 pending further review of policy and restructuring in the timber extraction industry. The Myanmar Timber Enterprise is currently the sole agency authorised to extract commercial timber resources throughout Myanmar.

  Following consultations with the Thai Government in 1990 on measures to combat the problem of illegal poaching of timber in the border areas, the Myanmar Government allocated approximately 50 Thai companies the right to extract fixed quotas of timber in accordance with official forest rules in specified zones on the Thai/Myanmar border. Unsatisfactory compliance with the terms of these concessions led the Myanmar Government to terminate all such concessions with effect from the end of 1993. The Myanmar Government is currently reviewing forestry policy in the border areas in the context of border area development.

  (2) Only Thai companies were authorised to extract timber under the arrangements outlined in the response to part (1) above. Although some of the Thai companies reportedly subcontracted their permits, we are not aware of any Australian companies having been involved in the extraction of timber in the border areas under those arrangements.

  (3) The zones in which Thai companies were authorised to operate were all located along the 1300 miles of common border between Myanmar and Thailand. We do not know the size of these zones. According to Myanmar authorities, no area was subject to clear felling, as the abundance of prime quality timber from mainly virgin forest made this practice both unnecessary and uneconomical.

  (4) We are aware of claims that there have been forced relocations of ethnic groups in the border region. While our information on border areas which are only now coming under the control of the Myanmar Government is not complete, so far we do not have evidence that relocations have been directly related to logging activities.

  (5) On the basis of information available, including from international organisations working in Myanmar, the Government is not aware of the extent of the impact on the natural environment of Myanmar resulting in particular from logging practices in the border areas. The environmental problems in Myanmar arising from forest degradation and loss of forest cover are nonetheless severe. They appear to be most pronounced in those areas affected by population pressure, which are subject to increased fuel wood requirements, the encroachment of agriculture and "slash and burn" cultivation.

  (6) In the absence of first hand information the Government has no means of assessing the effect of logging in the border regions on the viability of village life for ethnic communities in those areas. While there are over 72,000 displaced people from Myanmar in camps along the border, most displaced people cite forced labour or porterage, rather than illegal logging, as the reason for leaving their villages. The priority attached by the Myanmar Government to reafforestation and the development of domestic fuel wood supply plantations suggests that the Myanmar authorities are seized of the urgency of arresting the loss of forest cover, which currently stands at approximately 32.4 million hectares or approximately 50 per cent of the total land surface area of Myanmar.