Deforestation is well-known to most as a critical ecological problem. Nowadays, even an elementary schooler has probably been taught that the rainforests are shrinking. If asked how to solve the problem, people of all ages would likely rack their brains to think of “go green” solutions like recycling or planting trees in the park. But few would think of halting the import of timber from conflict-stricken countries as a potential environmentally friendly solution. What’s war got to do with trees, anyway? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is a lot!
You definitely don’t need to be a political science student to know that war is expensive. Warfare 101 (no Sun Tzu reading required): Economic resources are critical when you have an army to feed, clothe, and arm—and its critical that you try and cut off the resources of your enemy. If you’re a hefty healthy country, you luckily have a substantial population that you can tax, bonds you can sell, and perhaps even allies you can utilize to fund your war. But what if you’re the dirt poor, isolationist Burmese government in the 1980s? Or worse—what if you’re the dirt poor, internationally inconsequential, tiny rebel force trying to fight the Burmese government? In these types of scenarios, all you’ve got is what the good earth gives you. Perhaps it’s oil. Maybe it’s diamonds. In the case of the Karen National Union (KNU), a rebel group in Burma, it was trees.
Teak trees, to be precise. The Karen state, stretching down Burma’s eastern border with Thailand, was lush with teak forests. The Karen people had old historic ties with the forests, and were renowned for their skill working with elephants, which were essential to their forestry work for centuries. A history of oppression and strife led the KNU and scores of other ethnic groups into long, violent, and bloody war with the often brutal Burmese regime that caused the nation to tumble into chaos during the second half of the 20th century. During the first four decades of the war, Karen sustainable foresty practices continued relatively undisturbed. To administer the forests, the KNU set up the KNU Forestry Ministry in 1950 that largely mimicked the British colonial forestry organization, that organized Karen foresters as guards, rangers, and ministers to monitor logging and conservation. Initially, while the teak forests did generate some income for the KNU, there was little need to rely heavily on logging as various activities such as agriculture, mining, and fishing also generated income. However, as the war raged on, teak became an increasingly vital source of income. In 1989, the Burmese government (the State Law and Order Restoration Council, SLORC) targeted the KNU’s high-value teak forestry by granting vast logging concessions in Karen territory to Thai loggers in an attempt to divert forestry revenue to the SLORC and undermine KNU finances. An additional incentive for the SLORC to authorize extensive logging by Thai companies was that the loggers were required to build roads in the areas, which served a key strategic function in the war by allowing the government military to easily travel into the previously difficult-to-reach KNU stronghold. However, the KNU was still able to extract significant revenue by its continued ability to tax Thai loggers. Thus began a so-called “teak war,” resulting in massive overcutting and extreme violations of the KNU’s sustainable forestry practices. As a result, the region’s once vast teak forests were rapidly depleted, the KNU faced serious financial difficulties, and the Burmese military now had greater access than ever to the once inaccessible eastern borderlands. Once 70% covered by forests, the regime's teak wars with the KNU, as well as conflict-driven unsustainable logging activities in other areas of the country left less than 30% of the country still forested in 2001.
Going Green, Politics-Style
The case of the Karen National Union in Burma is far from unique. Logging is a high-value industry with low barriers to entry, which means it is easily exploitable, especially in times and regions of conflict. Logging has critically helped fund wars in Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and others. Here’s an interesting question for political science students: are wood wars the anomaly or the trend when it comes to armed conflict in forested areas?
The connection between conflict and harmful forestry practices shows us once again that “going green” requires not just personal responsibility but international cooperation. We need to closely examine domestic policy on timber imports, as well as work together to push for international agreements on conflict timber. What do you think? Is it possible to curtail the ecologically disastrous exploitation of forests to fund wars?
For further reading about conflict timber, I recommend the Global Witness report “The Logs of War: The Timber Trade and Armed Conflict” here. Sources for the information on the Karen National Union and the teak trade in this article are available upon request.