The Jakarta Post
Myanmar is emerging from a period of economic isolation, a period in which there has been limited access to external markets, investment funds and technology. It is well known that the country has an abundance of forests that produce high-quality teak wood.
It has a forest industry and a long history of scientific tropical forest management dating back more than 150 years. So, it is natural to ponder how Myanmar can take advantage of its new situation and successfully export timber and wood products to the rest of the world.
To do this, Myanmar faces some significant challenges. One set of challenges relates to the timber processing industry itself. It operates using rudimentary technology and is hampered by a lack of investment and an inconsistent power supply.
These challenges are tough enough, but there are another set of challenges that perhaps appear even harder to deal with. These are the weaknesses regarding the application of forestry regulations, making it difficult to assure buyers from key consumer countries that the supply chain from Myanmar contains only legally harvested timber.
This is an issue because in the last 10 years there have been new laws enacted in the US, Europe and more recently in Australia, where it is now compulsory for importers to check whether a product has been harvested legally.
While there is an existing documentation system in Myanmar to identify legally harvested timber, the general complexity and weaknesses in the current system allows illegally harvested timber or completed wood products to be mixed into supply chains.
At present, there is no independent auditing system operating in the country to provide assurances of timber legality for external buyers. In the absence of a credible national 'timber legality assurance system (TLAS)', or companies that have already been independently certified to supply legal timber, Myanmar faces great difficulties selling into the global market.
At the moment only 13 percent of production forests are considered to be sustainably managed in the region, and only half of that area is independently certified in this regard.
Myanmar is an excellent example of the importance of having a credible TLAS in the country seeking certified legal and sustainable management of their forest industry in order to maintain a competitive forestry sector. There are other economies in the Asia Pacific region that are in the process of setting up forestry regulations and practices and looking to establish a functioning TLAS.
This is one of the topics to be discussed at a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to be held this week in Medan, Indonesia.
The meeting is held under the auspices of APEC's Experts Group on Illegal Logging and Associated Trade (APEC EGILAT) and it will include a private sector dialogue on efforts to combat illegal logging and any associated trade and promote trade of legal timber products.
The location of the meeting in Medan is appropriate because of Indonesia's recent experience in developing and rolling out its own TLAS (known in Indonesian as SVLK). Beyond Myanmar, Indonesia's experience is instructive for other important timber producing and timber processing economies such as Papua New Guinea and China, respectively. Indonesia used a participatory process for defining timber legality and designing a structure for the system.
The process took more than 10 years to complete but it was done in a way that enhanced market buy-in from stakeholders. Among other things, Indonesia's system includes an accreditation agency to register certification, a monitoring and complaints network and an online system for handling documentation sharing. All of these elements are relevant to other APEC economies and their existence provides an important learning resource.
Having established its TLAS system, Indonesia is continuing to learn important lessons about how to operate the system and enforce the rules. Indonesia is addressing issues concerned with supporting the hundreds of thousands of small operators to participate in the program and increase capacity building required to reach and maintain the new standards of responsible forestry and trade.
Over the coming years, it is expected that Indonesia will have shifted from a situation in 2007, when it was thought that up to 60 percent of Indonesia's exports of timber were suspicious, to where the vast majority of its exports legally verified.
This is good for Indonesia and good for other countries who currently export timber with no TLAS in place and who wish to learn how it is done, and good for consumer countries with laws that prohibit imports of illegal timber.
We see the development of timber legality assurance systems in Asia as an important first step in securing more responsible forest management in the region and we would encourage all producer countries to follow Indonesia's lead.
However, there is another step to go beyond assuring legality. Timber that is legally harvested is not necessarily harvested in a sustainable way, environmentally or socially.
Once legality is sorted, the next step is to increase the area of production forests in Asia, certified as sustainably managed.
At the moment only 13 percent of production forests are considered to be sustainably managed in the region, and only half of that area is independently certified in this regard. Myanmar's emergence from isolation and the work of the APEC EGILAT may help to accelerate progress toward legal and sustainable forest management in Asia. If it does, it will be good for all of us ' producers, processors and consumers alike.
Andrew Ingles is The Nature Conservancy's Asia Pacific Forest System chief technical advisor, Jack Hurd is The Nature Conservancy's Asia Pacific deputy director, and Wahjudi Wardojo is The Nature Conservancy Indonesia System's senior advisor for Conservation Policy.
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