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Buyers inspect Myanmar timber being sold in the southern Chinese city of Kunming.

xu jinyan The Globe and Mail

For more than two decades, the merchants in the Kunming Southwest Timber Market have conducted a brisk trade in a coveted but controversial resource: teak and other woods harvested from isolated, military-ruled Myanmar.

But these days, the merchants who warehouse their refined timber and raw logs in a muddy maze of garages on the edge of this southwestern Chinese city say they can no longer make a go of it dealing in Myanmar timber alone. Some have started shifting their focus to the relatively unscathed forests of Laos, while others have switched from forestry to mining in Myanmar. Some have already closed their shops for good.

What is happening is a tragedy foretold for years by opponents of the generals who rule the country better known as Burma. Desperate for cash, and hemmed in by international sanctions, Myanmar's government opened up the country's bountiful forests, and other natural resources, to companies in China, long the country's only major trading partner.

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After 20 years of almost unhindered clear-cutting, the traders and forestry experts say, only a fraction of Myanmar's legendary forests of teak and redwood remain standing. Timber merchants in Kunming - the biggest hub anywhere for buying and selling Myanmar timber - say there will be no more Myanmar teak left to harvest in a decade, maybe less.

"It can't last more than another 10 years, maybe just five or six years if they cut faster," said Chen Jinian, office manager at Sen Long Timber, a company owned by his uncle that has been importing wood from Myanmar since the early 1990s.

Mr. Chen recently returned from a cross-border trip to negotiate a purchase, and said that his company has had to go deeper and deeper into the heart of Myanmar to find good-quality wood since the once-lush forests in the borderlands were now all but exhausted. In Yunnan province, on the Chinese side of the border, cutting is strictly regulated by authorities and the mountains are still topped with valuable but protected forests.

In Myanmar, Mr. Chen said, it's a free-for-all, with the central government in Naypyidaw, local military commanders and anti-government ethnic militias that control the border areas all willing to sell the forests under their control in exchange for desperately needed cash. "When you cross the border to the Myanmar side, you can see the mountains that no longer have any trees on them," he said. "Soon the trees will be all cut. Without the trees, there will be only mountains. So we will look into mining them."

Mr. Chen's bleak description is matched by other traders in the Kunming timber market, where the growing scarcity of Myanmar teak and redwood has driven up prices and hurt demand. Traders say business has fallen sharply in recent years, due in part to the global financial downturn, but also to the Chinese government's efforts to regulate trade across the Myanmar border, which has resulted in the imposition of tariffs of as high as 100 per cent on some wood.

While Western sanctions against Myanmar - which were tightened in 2007 following the military's violent suppression of monk-led protests that year - may have also played a role (traders say most of their buyers are in Europe and that demand from there has slackened in recent years), no one The Globe and Mail spoke to in the Kunming timber market was aware of their existence.

"In 10 more years, every type of Myanmar wood will be out of supply," said a trader who would give only his family name, Huang. His company's warehouse is stocked with rosewood from Laos, which appears to be rising as an alternate source of sought-after timbers, as well as from Myanmar. "Only one-fifth of the businessmen who used to work in Myanmar timber are still doing it. Eventually, we'll all have to look for opportunities somewhere else."

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In a 2005 report entitled "The Choice for China: Ending the destruction of Burma's frontier forests," Global Witness, a British-based non-governmental organization, found the forests of northern Myanmar were even then on the verge of collapse. While the clear-cutting and smuggling of timber from the region has slowed since then due to efforts by both Beijing and Naypyidaw to regulate (and tax) the trade, a former Global Witness researcher who worked on the 2005 report said it would take decades of responsible management for the forests to recover.

The complete exhaustion of the resource within the decade "is a possible scenario," said the researcher, who lives inside Myanmar and asked not to be named. "It depends on how efficient they are in cutting down what's left and how cost-effective it is to do so."

She said the damage done to date was immediately visible to anyone who travelled along Myanmar's border with China. Deforested "bald mountains," were a common sight in the region, the researcher said, and Chinese companies that had once imported timber mostly from the border areas were now importing trees from closer to the centre of the country. "It will be many years, even in the best-case scenario, before those forests are again viable."

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