Soe Moe Tun. Image via Twitter

A Burmese journalist was found dead on December 13 while investigating illegal logging and wood smuggling near Monywa, in the Sagaing region of Northwest Myanmar, his colleague and bureau chief has confirmed.

Soe Moe Tun was a reporter for the Daily Eleven. He was found dead, with head wounds, by the side of the road near a golf course. The police are investigating the incident but have not released any further information.

Monywa in Myanmar's Sagaing region. Source: Adapted from Google Maps

Illegal trade

Myanmar has some of most biodiverse forests in the world, but one of the worst deforestation rates, close behind Brazil and Indonesia.

Between 2002 and 2014, Myanmar lost two million hectares, or 11%, of its intact forest to illegal logging and conversion of land to other uses. This has happened most intensively along rivers, major roads, and land borders to neighbouring countries, particularly China and India.

Loss of forest not only threatens rare wildlife species, including tigers and snub-nosed monkeys, it also exacerbates wider environmental degradation from erosion, flooding and decreased water quality. This is being compounded by the massive mining expansion around protected forest areas in Kachin and Sagaing – where land used for mining has grown by more than 700% in the past decade.

Destruction of forests and conversion of large swathes of land into rubber and timber plantations leaves local communities hugely vulnerable – in a country where 70% of household fuel needs are still met by firewood.

Sagaing, which borders India, is one of the country’s major hotspots for illegal logging. Much of its valuable teak and other rare hardwood species end up being smuggled over the border to China, according to a recent untitled report by the Environmental Investigation Agency – and rates have doubled since 2009. It is an illicit business worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, making it one of the single largest bilateral flows of illegal timber in the world, the agency claimed. Most of this money has flowed into the hands of military cronies, businesspeople and ethnic armed groups.

In May, the Myanmar government imposed a one-year logging ban – with a 10-year moratorium in the particularly valuable teak forests of Pego. However, sources within the timber industry say that extraction continues to be driven by state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise and illegal loggers, and exacerbated by conflict between the military and armed ethnic groups in the forested borderlands. The forestry department, they say, doesn’t have the resources or the capacity to enforce the ban.

Journalists are believed to be at particular threat from violent crime in Myanmar, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, with at least five having been murdered in the country since 1999. Myanmar comes ninth on the committee’s “10 Most Censored Countries” list. The concept of freedom of the press is very new, since the country came under a quasi-civilian government in 2011 after decades of military rule.

Journalists are not the only ones at risk. A few weeks ago, a Karen environmentalist, Naw Chit Pandering, was stabbed to death for speaking out about land grab and mining in the southeastern region of Dawei. Civil society groups have alleged the murder is linked to her work and warned that other activists are in danger.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.