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Interview: Myanmar insurgent groups key to forest and climate protection

With his new book, the veteran Myanmar researcher Ashley South suggests insurgent groups are best placed to protect the country’s forests

Hardwood logs for export from Myanmar’s city of Mandalay – both the military junta and its opponents depend upon logging to finance their operations (Image: Julio Etchart / Alamy)

Myanmar has the largest area under forests in mainland Southeast Asia, although according to the World Bank, its forest area had decreased from 60% in 1990 to 43% by 2020. Caused by logging and mining, these processes have accelerated since the February 2021 coup that brought a military junta back to power. In the decades since the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, both Myanmar’s military and its many ethnic insurgent groups have been involved in logging and mining to finance themselves.

Veteran Myanmar researcher Ashley South – a strong supporter of many ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) in the country – says some of the armed groups are now moving towards forest protection, while the junta is not.

Ashley South
An author and research fellow at Thailand’s Chiangmai University, Ashley South has been visiting and studying Myanmar for nearly three decades (Image: Bellay South)

A research fellow at Thailand’s Chiangmai University who also blogs about his Myanmar trips, South is a strong advocate for international development agencies funding EAOs to protect forests. He thinks this is vital for protecting what is a globally important carbon sink.

South explores these issues in his new book, Conflict, Complexity and Climate Change: Emergent Federal Systems and Resilience in Post-Coup Myanmar. He underlines his main arguments in conversation with The Third Pole.

The Third Pole: How have the protection and the exploitation of Myanmar’s forests changed since the coup in February 2021?

Ashley South: The situation has become much worse. The previous National League for Democracy-led government was not particularly interested in climate change or environmental issues, but I think the rates of illegal deforestation did decline a bit. In the last two and a half years, it has been going in the other direction very badly.

Under the junta, the economy is effectively collapsing. And the junta is very much in need of cash to support the military machine and to keep running the militarised state. And so there have been many logging and mining concessions issued across the country. They are really designed just to extract maximum resources as quickly as possible.

The Third Pole: You say in your book that a lot of Myanmar’s logging and mining products go to China, which has greatly increased since the coup. At the same time, you describe how China cooperates with EAOs. China’s dual role here may deter western donors from engaging with either side. What’s your solution?

Ashley South: China provides so much more to all sides than western donors; it’s not really comparable. And I guess part of the quid pro quo has been the shipping of Myanmar’s natural resources to China. But I think China’s pretty serious about addressing climate change. That is a conversation to be had with groups on the ground, and I’d be very curious to know whether those conversations are actually going on.

Forests are a global public green good, and these groups are best placed to protect forests. They need support.

The West has left it very, very late to get into this game. EAOs have been asking for support to adopt more climate-friendly policies but [the West has] just not been there. China has stepped into that vacuum, but it’s not focused on environmental protection. I wonder if the way to go is for China to work with the EAOs to develop better protection regimes, because I think it’s only China that really has the access or the interest.

But I think there is still an opportunity for western actors to step in. The request has been outstanding for a long time.

The Third Pole: Myanmar’s armed organisations have also been known for large-scale logging and mining. How do you know they will change?

Ashley South: Ethnic armed organisations have very significant revenue needs to buy weapons, but also for basic humanitarian assistance, little of which gets provided by the international community. And so, the obvious place for them to turn is to natural resources.

But the EAOs I work with are really serious about protecting the natural environment. It’s their national heritage. There are really impressive efforts, but those efforts are not getting the support they need.

I can’t think of a better context than Myanmar to try something a bit outside the box and to take localisation seriously

Logging and mining are terrible disasters for local communities, but also for the world, because it takes away the largest carbon sink in mainland Southeast Asia. Forests are a global public green good, and these groups are best placed to protect forests. They need support, but the support isn’t coming through.

The Third Pole: Your book says the move from logging and mining by EAOs is far from complete. So, how can external stakeholders differentiate between loggers and protectors?

Ashley South: The groups that can protect forests have to be groups that control territory and have the ability to do something. That’s about capacity. And then I think we probably want to look to the groups that have developed significant policy and legal frameworks. There are half a dozen ethnic armed organisations that have done so or are in the process of doing so.

Then we have to see which groups are actually walking the talk. That’s not obvious and straightforward. It requires some research on the part of finance actors.

The Third Pole: International climate funds are mandated to work with recognised governments, not armed insurgents. How do you envisage this problem being navigated?

Ashley South: There are examples of financing local groups for climate action. I can’t think of a better context than Myanmar to try something a bit outside the box and to take localisation seriously. It can be through civil society partners who work with armed groups.

The approach I’ve been developing over a couple of decades is to see ethnic organisations as de facto local governing authorities. And, I would say, sort of legitimate.

The Third Pole: The book cites KESAN (the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network) planting 680,000 trees this year with international support. How was that support sourced?

Ashley South: I’m not sure of the sourcing, but I know the money has been properly used, with the leadership of the Karen National Union [an armed insurgent group]. The implementation is with schools and communities.

The Third Pole: The Salween Peace Park is internationally known; has its reputation been leveraged to get climate funding?

Ashley South: Yes, I think it has. It’s very successful – they’ve won international awards. And it’s a real indigenous-based initiative. More peace parks are coming up now. I think they need to be better recognised and supported.

Myanmar is an outlier today, but climate change is worsening conflicts, and other countries may be in the same position ten years from now. If we can find ways of identifying the right local partners in Myanmar now, that can be useful in other parts of the world.