By Timothy Mclaughlin and Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar has banned lucrative logging operations as the newly-elected government of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi steps up a battle on deforestation, an environment official said on Thursday.
Myanmar's rich forests are among its most valuable natural resources, but they have been plundered by logging that helped fund the former military regime that ran the country for 49 years, before reforms began in 2011.
In April 2014, Myanmar banned export of raw timber logs to slow deforestation and boost its own production. By 2010, forest cover had shrunk to 47 percent of land area from 58 percent in 1990, Forestry Ministry data show.
Despite the ban, illegal logging has thrived in northeast Myanmar, where valuable teak and rosewood are smuggled over the border to neighboring China, forest watchdog the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has said.
"We have been reducing timber extraction, and now we have decided to stop logging completely," said John Swe Ba, a managing director at Myanmar's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
"This measure will cover teak and other hardwoods all across the country," he added.
Legal logging has also played a major role in ravaging the environment. State-owned Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), overseen by Swe Ba's ministry, has a monopoly on the formal timber sector, but subcontracts work to numerous companies.
That body was targeted by United States sanctions until 2014, when the Treasury Department gave it an initial one-year waiver to work with the U.S.-based International Wood Products Association, extended in July 2015 for two more years.
"Methods of over-harvesting include felling a greater number of logs of a particular tree species and extracting logs smaller in diameter than recommended," said the EIA, which is based in Britain.
"As such, the legal forest sector practices in Myanmar are a significant contributor to deforestation and forest degradation," the watchdog added in its 2015 report.
Measures are needed to save the jobs of more than 17,000 employees in government departments working on timber production, Swe Ba added, without saying what they might be.
"We can’t afford to let them be out of jobs overnight," he said.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)