Illegal charcoal trade threatens Myanmar’s remaining mangroves

A manager of a charcoal warehouse who has worked in the business for more than two decades, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of retribution, said that he sees nothing wrong with the types of bags that are used to ship charcoal. He prefers to recycle bags than to manufacture new ones. He admits that the country of origin label is false.

“I’ve never seen the charcoal being made here in Thailand. All the charcoal comes from Myanmar,” he said.

Setting up a system where the charcoal kiln owners are indebted to the warehouses they supply is a guaranteed method to ensure a consistent supply of charcoal, the warehouse manager told Mongabay. “My boss keeps suppliers in a debt trap so the suppliers will not sell to other warehouses,” he says. “If they do, my boss would then inform the police that the supplier is smuggling charcoal.”

Since Ranong is right on the water along the Thai-Myanmar border and at an immigration checkpoint, the port is a busy place. On any given day, painted boats scurry back and forth carrying passengers between the two countries. Multitiered fishing boats filled with blue bins are docked around the port. Long, wooden boats labeled in Burmese and overflowing with bags of charcoal also litter the waterways. Fishing and charcoal boats are headed for their respective warehouses, which line the small peninsula. Patches of unperturbed mangrove forests are located directly across from these warehouses.

Around the port, seven warehouses receive shipments of charcoal from Myanmar.

A bag of charcoal made in a kiln near Kyunsu Township in Myanmar. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Workers in the warehouses sort the pieces of charcoal by size. When they dump the contents of an unsorted bag out, a small plume of black dust erupts upon contact with the floor, which seems to be constantly covered in a fine dusting of charcoal. The workers’ hands and any body part that traps moisture or might frequently be touched — like the area between the upper lip and nose, or the edges of their ears — are invariably stained black from the soot.

Although charcoal shipments from Myanmar seem to arrive in Ranong at a rapid clip, the charcoal warehouse manager is skeptical that this business will be sustainable in the long term: “You can’t deny that mangroves are being destroyed. People will soon have to ship charcoal made from wood in the forests because of the shortage of mangrove forest, and soon it won’t be profitable.”

Ko Myo Oo is also worried about how the illicit charcoal trade fuels mangrove deforestation. From a conservation standpoint, “The best way to preserve the mangroves in Myanmar is if Thailand no longer buys our charcoal,” he said.

With additional reporting by Victoria Milko.

Banner image: A brick kiln in the Irrawaddy region with a mixture of mangrove and other wood. Workers say they prefer the finish on the charcoal made from mangrove. Photo by Victoria Milko.

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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