PINLEBU, Myanmar (AP) — The hills of northern Myanmar's Sagaing region were so legendarily thick with forests that in the days of kings, condemned criminals were ordered into the woods as a death sentence. Today illegal logging has left vast swaths of bare patches, with only a handful of old-growth stands.
Despite a temporary ban on all logging by the Southeast Asian country's new government, the Associated Press found in a trip to the remote region that loggers are still cutting down some of the remaining old trees. The AP also saw loggers illegally chopping up the wood from already felled trees for transportation and sale. Piles of such wood have been confiscated by the government, but villagers said officials can be bribed to let it through.
Massive amounts of teak, rosewood and other hardwoods have been illegally cut and exported from Myanmar since 2011. Much of that wood was stripped from the Sagaing region, floated on the Irrawaddy River and transported to neighboring China and India.
Myanmar has lost more than a quarter of its forests since 1990, according to the U.N. The losses have been greatest in the north, in Sagaing and neighboring Shan and Kachin states. The pace of deforestation had increased under the last government, though it banned timber exports in 2014.
"Logging companies usually chop down trees more than they actually are permitted," said Min Min, a farmer and environmental activist who previously worked transporting illegally cut logs. "According to my experience, I've never seen the government take action against the companies chopping down any size of trees they wanted."
Four activists in Sagaing told The Associated Press that logging appeared to be continuing on a small scale despite the temporary ban, based on truckloads of lumber they have seen being transported. This is the rainy season in Myanmar, and an off period for the illegal timber trade in any case.
Those arrested have included members of Myanmar's military, which no longer rules the country but remains powerful. Burmese media reported last week that nearly three tons of rosewood were seized from a military vehicle in Sagaing.
This summer, AP reporters rode jeeps and motorbikes for 20 hours over rough, muddy roads to reach villages in northern Sagaing, meeting former illegal loggers, local villagers and elephant keepers. Despite its remoteness, vast swaths of hillsides and valleys were bald patches.
Young trees, perhaps 10 years old, stand near the stumps of ancestors that were clearly many times larger. A few villages have managed to cling to old-growth stands in small community forests, but that is all.
"We used to be so afraid of coming to the forest alone because it was too forested," said Aung Moe Kyaw, a local environmental activist. "Now, as you see, it is bald and no more big trees. The big trees are all gone now."
Logging in Sagaing has traditionally been done with the help of elephants, and while that work has continued, heavy equipment is used much more commonly.
"If the logging was only done by the government and pulled logs by elephant, deforestation wouldn't be that bad," said Than Lwin, an elephant trainer, showing off two of the six elephants that work hauling felled tree trunks that weigh up to five tons. "We see that logging companies are chopping down trees as much as they want."
Mountains of recently cut illegal timber worth millions of dollars lie in villages across the region; most of the timber the AP team saw was rosewood, coveted in China and elsewhere for its natural red color. Activists say the wood has been seized by the government mostly since late 2015, but that loggers commonly have been able to get it back by bribing officials.
The AP team traveling witnessed loggers cutting wood outside Katha, a Sagaing town that is a transit hub for the trade. An activist traveling with the journalists said the logging was illegal and contacted forest department officials, who detained the loggers and seized their equipment.
The wood-cutting operation had been set up near a mountain far from the nearest village. Because exporting lumber rather than raw timber is not illegal, clandestine wood-cutting is a way to circumvent the law.
Villagers learned of the operation and informed the activist. The leader of the logging crew looked nervous when the activists and journalists arrived. When asked where he got the timber, he said his brother recently gave him the leftover logs, and that they were only for home use.
Local environmental activists working under the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, which supports efforts to combat illegal logging in developing countries, say much illegally cut timber is hauled to Katha, transported on the Irrawaddy and sent on various paths through Kachin state and the Mandalay region before it reaches China's western Yunan province. They say bribes allow illegal loads to pass official gates.
Min Min said a former boss would bribe police and forest department officials ahead of time, so that when Min Min arrived at the gate, the officials would let him go without checking his truck.
"The officials protect us for giving bribes, and sometimes they even come with us on the truck to show us the way to get to our final destination," he said.
Myo Min, national director of the forestry department, said Thursday the government is trying to stop corruption.
"There are many individual bribery cases but not all staff from the forest department is involved," he said. "... We have taken action against bribe-taking staff in the past and are still working on it now."
Myanmar police referred questions about corruption to the forestry department.
Myo Min said the department has taken action against staff in the Katha district in the past. But the district's director, Soe Tint, denied that officials have cooperated in illegal logging.
"Because of the Chinese demand for hardwood, there could be illegal logging cooperation among businessmen," he said.
How big is Myanmar's smuggling? From 2011 to 2014, Myanmar reported $2.83 billion in exports of hardwood in the rough, while trading partners reported imports of $5.57 billion. Illegal logging is likely to account for some of that $2.74 billion discrepancy. Other timber-cutting is probably absent from any country's record-keeping.
India and China are by far the biggest consumers. From 2011 to 2015, the two countries collectively imported about six times more Myanmar teak and rosewood than the rest of the world combined.
"Most of illegal timber is transported to China through Kachin state," said Khon Ja of the activist group Kachin Peace Network. "We have witnessed how they (illegal loggers) bribe military officers and civil officers throughout the way when they carried out the illegal timber.
"It is an unnecessarily great loss. The valuable natural resources are sold for a penny," she added.
From 2010 to 2015, Myanmar had the third-largest forest loss in the world, equivalent to an annual loss of 546,000 hectares (2,100 square miles), according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
In 2011, Myanmar's longtime military rulers gave way to a military-backed but quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein that ruled until earlier this year. That government is credited with initiating a series of political reforms and helping the country emerge from decades of international isolation, but one side effect of that new openness was that Myanmar's vast natural resources became easier to exploit.
"The worst period was under President Thein Sein's administration," said Than Hlaing, a Sagaing regional lawmaker. "The government itself was cooperating with the businessmen. The illegal logging was widespread in our region."
Since 2014, the government has banned the export of raw timber logs to protect old-growth forests. In May, the new elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi announced a nationwide logging ban for this fiscal year, which ends March 31.
The forest department compound in Katha is now home to a fleet of trucks, buses and vans that the government has seized from illegal loggers since late last year.
Myo Min, the forestry director, said last month that the government has seized more than 16,000 tons of illegally cut logs since April, when the current government took office and that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been filed in that time. He said that continues work that began toward the end of previous government, which seized 30,000 tons of logs and filed more than 2,200 criminal cases in its last fiscal year.
At least some illegal loggers are being prosecuted, including one whom AP reporters met in Wuntho village shortly after his release from prison, where he had spent four months.
Corruption and weak law enforcement remain obstacles.
"The illegal loggers are so smart and professional, as they have been doing it for a long time," said Min Naung, a Lower House lawmaker and a member of the Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee. "They know how to transport illegal logs when and where, and they definitely know the weaknesses of the government. They know how to avoid being arrested."
He said some officials are still taking bribes, "even if it's less," and that the forest department lacks muscle. "They don't have enough people to seize logging sites and people because it can be dangerous for them, and they have no weapons but pens," he said.
A forest department worker in Sagaing was recently killed by illegal loggers. "We could do nothing about it and we were really sad what happened to him. We couldn't protect him," Min Naung said.
Soe Tint, the forest official, said that although the killing was the first of its kind in the district, his workers are often threatened or even harmed, and they frequently ask for backup from police.
Though local villagers have sometimes taken part in illegal logging, they say they've received virtually none of the proceeds. And they say the biggest operators rely on loggers from other regions.
Even by the standards of Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries, northern Sagaing is impoverished and remote. The roads are too poor for most people to travel frequently. Villagers are heavily dependent on farming, but they lack irrigation, and harvest food from the forest outside of the growing season. Villages typically have only a primary school, so further education is out of the question for most children.
"It has been always difficult for us to stop illegal loggers," said Aung Moe Kyaw, the activist. "They have a good deal with the authorities from different levels and they benefit from it, but villagers who live by the forests are so poor."
At the same time, he said, simply having members of Parliament pay attention to the issue is an improvement.
"If the new government could protect these forests for a few years," he said, "it would actually give the chance for these forests to live."