The value of trees in Myanmar: Q&A with Laura Kmoch

Photo: Malte Peter Øhlers

The value of trees in Myanmar: Q&A with Laura Kmoch

Today is the International Day of Forests, this year with the theme: Forests & Energy. We are celebrating by talking to Focali member Laura Kmoch, PhD candidate at the Division of Physical Resource Theory, Department of Energy and Environment, Chalmers. Laura has just returned after 8 weeks in the field in upland Myanmar, where she has been studying the contribution of trees to rural livelihoods.

How can your research contribute to the understanding of rural transformation in the region?

My research expands current knowledge about income portfolios, and the contribution of trees to rural livelihoods in upland Myanmar. Farming villages, situated near mountain ridges of up to 2000 meters, narrow valleys and small paddy terraces alongside Manipur river, characterise my study side. Swidden farming, where re-growing trees are periodically cleared for agriculture, remains common, despite state regulations seeking to discourage this traditional farming practice. However, rural people have also begun to establish more permanent fields on irrigated terraces, and experiment with plantations of high value trees such as teak and parkia trees. The latter are priced for their high value seed pods that middlemen sell to consumers on the other side of the Indian border. Village households depend on small solar panels and in some cases, micro-hydro power generation, to meet their electricity needs. Fuel wood remains families’ primary energy source for heating and to cook meals. The resulting pressure on forest and farm-tree resources is visible near urban centres, where tree-cover appears to be receding.

A stack of fuelwood on the road side. Photo Laura Kmoch

A stack of fuelwood on the road side. Photo Laura Kmoch

We know that tree products make an important contribution to rural livelihoods in this mosaic landscape of home-gardens, shifting-cultivation plots, fallow lands and secondary forests, where livelihoods and farming activities often remain subsistence based and tightly interlinked with land- and natural resources. However, scarcity of data means that we currently lack an in-depth understanding of the nature of this nexus of livelihoods, agriculture and forestry. Environmental dependence, and the relative contribution of forests and farm-trees to total household income portfolios, likewise remain little explored.

My work is a first step in addressing this knowledge gap. Based on my data, I will be able to identify those fruit, timber and fuel wood species that are currently of importance, or greatest commercial interest to rural households. They can thus be targeted in the design of future development activities or extension services that the state or NGOs offer. I further seek to attribute income streams, from land-based livelihood activities, to land under different tenure and land-use regimes. Based on such insights, I can formulate hypothesis about likely consequences of land-sector reforms, for smallholders’ access to land and natural resources. My ambition for future field stays is to build upon my current data, as a starting point to explore likely and desirable future development trajectories of livelihood and land-use systems at my study site. I am equally interested in exploring perceptions and objectives of rural farmers, local authorities and development actors, as I am convinced that such an exploration of potentially disparate perspectives can help to identify synergies, and negotiate trade-offs, in the concurrent realisation of environmental, social and economic objectives in Myanmar’s uplands.

Can you describe what you did during your field research?

The main objective for my first extended field stay in Myanmar’s Chin State, was to develop a good understanding of the socio-economic status of rural households at my study site. Together with two local enumerators I implemented a structured survey, sampling close to 100 households from four villages in a relatively remote and mountainous area in the country’s North-West. To researchers, NGOs and other foreign actors, Chin State was largely off-limits in past decades. During the last years, however, the situation has begun to change: Efforts are underway to expand the road network, banks are opening, private companies develop telecommunication infrastructure, and rural families hope for better access to public services and new job opportunities to arise in this context of change. Multilateral donor funds, and remittances from family members who temporarily out-migrate to Malaysia, Thailand or India, now contribute to the rural economy. Yet, most village households continue to depend on small-scale farming of rice, maize and vegetable crops to meet their basic households needs. Private farm and forest trees are a source of construction timber, fruits and fuel wood.

Photo: Laura Kmoch

Household interview with tablet based digital questionnaire. Photo: Laura Kmoch

My survey data, captured with hand-held tablets during personal interviews, will provide a comprehensive snapshot of annual household income streams for each sampled household, including income from agricultural crops, livestock, environmental products collected in the wild, business activities, employment and other income sources. In addition, I obtained basic data on household demographics, differences in the relative allocation of labour and land resources to various livelihood activities, and households’ asset endowments. Key informant interviews and focus group discussions provided an opportunity to learn more about the study villages, and obtain data on prices, units and the seasonality of important crops and environmental products that rural families use.

In what ways are the forests of Myanmar affected by the current phase of rapid transformation in the country?

Myanmar is rich in natural resources, including large tracts of continuous primary forest and tree plantations in the northernmost State Kachin, Sagaing Region, Rakhine and Shan States in the West and East, as well as Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region in the countries South. Logs of valuable timber species, such as teak, were a lucrative source of foreign revenue streams to the military government that ruled Myanmar in the past. But logging was not the only driver of deforestation, contributing to a rapid loss of tree cover and forest degradation in the country. Forests have also been cleared to gain space for agribusiness concessions, smallholder farming, mining and dam construction, expanding urban areas and to meet domestic demand for tree products.

The current political transition may introduce new challenges, as foreign and domestic investment interests increase the pressure on land in parts of the country. However, windows of opportunity to address degradation and deforestation drivers, through legislative and institutional reforms, likewise arise. Colleagues from Myanmar, Denmark and the UK have identified an overhaul of the forest-sector regulatory framework, land-tenure reforms and an allocation of additional staff and financial resources to strengthen capacities of the forest department as entry points to affecting positive, transformative change. Indeed, observers recently witnessed first shifts in the sector’s trajectory, towards more sustainable forest use and conservation. A temporary, national logging ban has been enacted for the fiscal year 2016/17, illegally logged timber was seized and the national UNREDD program was launched in January. Forests and trees in Myanmar can become cornerstones to sustainable business development, achieving climate resilience, ensuring food security and protecting biodiversity in stands of high conservation value. Hopefully, this potential will be realized and acted upon accordingly, in coming years.

Read more about Laura Kmoch.

More info on International Day of Forests

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