Sacks of Myanmar charcoal are unloaded in a waterside warehouse in the Thai port town of Ranong in December 2023. (Frontier)

Mangrove loss in Tanintharyi hits illegal charcoal trade with Thailand

The depletion of mangrove forests in Tanintharyi Region has constrained the illicit crossborder trade, even as prices remain high, but small-scale producers in Myanmar’s deep south have few other ways to make a living.


In the Thai port of Ranong, across the Kraburi estuary from Myanmar’s southernmost town of Kawthaung, sits a warehouse with an unconventional design. A pier beneath the warehouse roof can accommodate two boats, which, upon arrival, are unloaded using a winch that can hoist 15 woven bags at a time.

When Frontier visited the warehouse in December, more than 30 Myanmar migrant workers were repacking recently delivered charcoal into fresh bags and loading them into trucks. Each of the bags holds 20 viss (32.66 kilogrammes) of charcoal, mostly made using wood harvested from mangrove forests across the border in Tanintharyi Region.

This crossborder trade persists despite exports of wood charcoal being illegal under Myanmar’s 2018 Forest Law. The owner of the warehouse, Ko Swam*, says boat operators pay bribes to the Myanmar navy to bear charcoal from the Tanintharyi coast to Ranong, bypassing the customs authorities in Kawthaung. “It has been happening for so long that they expect it,” he said of members of the navy, for whom smuggling boats have been a regular source of income for many years.

Although Thailand records charcoal deliveries as legal imports, Ko Swam said bribes must also be paid to Thai authorities to permit shipments smuggled from Myanmar without any paperwork. “It’s no different in Thailand. They demand a lot of money from charcoal boats,” Ko Swam told Frontier, specifying the forestry department, customs officials and police. “I must pay whatever the Thai authorities ask to run my business.”

Yet, despite the flurry of activity at the warehouse, Thai customs data shows a slow but steady decline in the charcoal trade by volume. From a high of 104,018 tonnes of imported Myanmar charcoal in 2014, the figure has declined to 72,619 tonnes in 2022 and 69,004 last year. But at the same time, prices appear to have increased, meaning the overall value of the bilateral trade remains robust. It hit a record of 344 million baht (US$9.4 million) in 2022, sliding only slightly to 315 million the following year.

This suggests no slowing of demand in Thailand for Myanmar charcoal, which accounted for more than two thirds of Thai imports of the commodity, with smaller quantities coming from Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. While many households and businesses in Thailand have switched to cooking mostly with gas, using charcoal only for barbecues, Thai customs data suggests that almost 80 percent of charcoal imports are re-exported, to countries including China, Japan, Australia and Bahrain.

But as Frontier discovered while visiting charcoal-producing communities on the Tanintharyi coast, meeting Thai demand has proved increasingly difficult because of mangrove deforestation. So, despite the high prices, fewer local people can benefit from the trade. Many long-time producers are therefore downsizing or abandoning the industry, but a dearth of alternative livelihood options is pushing them into poverty.

A Myanmar migrant worker inspects sacks of charcoal from Tanintharyi Region at a warehouse in Ranong in December 2023. (Frontier)

Boom and bust

The slow-burning quality of mangrove wood is ideal for charcoal production, making the industry a major driver of mangrove deforestation, along with the clearing of forests for shrimp farming, rice growing and urbanisation. Myanmar has some of the world’s largest surviving mangrove cover, but remote sensing analysis published in 2020 suggested that more than half the country’s mangrove forests had been permanently or temporarily converted to other uses in the previous two decades – far more than previously thought.

Mangrove loss deprives fish species of nurseries, and coastal communities of a buffer against storm surges. The impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed more than 138,000 people, was considerably worsened by the rampant logging of mangroves on the coast of Ayeyarwady Region, where the storm made landfall.

The Ayeyarwady delta region was once the centre of Myanmar’s charcoal industry, but the deforestation boosted Tanintharyi as a new hub. A larger factor, though, was Thailand’s banning of domestic production in the late 1990s to halt its own mangrove loss. This led entrepreneurs like Ko Swam to provide loans to people on the Tanintharyi coast and teach them how to construct and operate brick kilns, which burn mangrove wood to make charcoal. In exchange for this support, they must supply Ko Swam and other warehouse owners with their charcoal.

This system transformed livelihoods in coastal villages in Tanintharyi, and also prompted the creation of whole new settlements to serve the charcoal industry. One of them sprang up along the Naung Cho Creek, in the Karathuri area of southern Bokpyin Township. The village’s roughly 200 residents were overwhelmingly migrants from Dawei and Palaw townships, elsewhere in Tanintharyi, who came to work at the kilns. The founder of the village was a trader who used his boat to ship the charcoal to Thailand.

When Frontier visited in December, a resident said that “Naung Cho Creek was previously a vibrant village, bustling with residents who had disposable income”. The settlement developed to the point where, after 2010, a primary school was established for local children.

The trouble began when the National League for Democracy government, elected in 2015, started trying to tame the region’s charcoal industry in a bid to save the mangroves. In 2016, it imposed an annual charcoal production quota of 10,000 tonnes per year for Tanintharyi. However, a 2020 report about the region’s charcoal industry by United States-based non-profit Forest Trends concluded that the quota and an associated permit system – which continue today – had been counterproductive, both in terms of conserving mangroves and regularising the largely informal industry.

Forest Trends found the quota was deeply unrealistic. It was five-and-half times lower than just the household demand for charcoal in Tanintharyi, where there are few alternative cooking fuels – not to mention the demand from Thailand. Moreover, the small-scale producers who make up most of the industry “have been unable or unwilling to obtain permits” due to bureaucratic hurdles, real and perceived, and an “inability to pay bribes and permit fees”, the report said. As a result, most of the industry remained unregulated.

This includes the charcoal-makers of Naung Cho Creek, who were punished for lacking permits. Residents told Frontier that government forestry officials came to the village in 2017 and destroyed the kilns. While many of them were rebuilt, production slowed, particularly as the more accessible mangrove forests were depleted.

Daw Cho Cho, who had moved to the village from Dawei to make charcoal, said the number of producers there had shrunk to about 20 people belonging to five families. The 60-year-old woman had herself stopped producing for lack of available wood.

Ko Myo Myint, a resident of Bokpyin who has been involved in the crossborder charcoal trade for about 20 years, said that during the boom years a decade ago, about 20 charcoal boats would travel each week from Bokpyin to Thailand to sell their goods. His own boat made the trip three or four times a month, but now that there is less charcoal to sell, he only goes to Thailand once a month or twice every three months.

Another production hub in Tanintharyi is Kyunsu Township, which covers a cluster of islands north of Bokypin. Local charcoal trader Ko Yan Gyi had a similar story to Myo Myint. “In the past, we went down [to Thailand] three or four times a month, but now we can’t fill the boat even once a month,” he told Frontier.

Sources all agreed that mangrove loss was mainly responsible for the downturn.

“Tanintharyi has experienced significantly less deforestation compared to Rakhine State and Ayeyarwady Region,” said a Forest Department official who preferred to remain anonymous. “However, even in the mangrove forests of Bokpyin, trees are now only found along the beaches, with few remaining [on rivers and creeks] inland.”

A charcoal kiln in Tanintharyi’s southern Bokpyin Township, seen in February 2018. (Frontier)

No other option’

Some communities have been helped in changing their livelihoods. For instance, in 2022, the Norway-based Worldview International Foundation began a mangrove restoration project in Bokpyin’s Salone creek, near Chaung Ka Phee village, alongside project sites elsewhere in Myanmar. The former forestry official said that previously, the village was home to about 30 small charcoal kilns, but the foundation has sponsored them to pursue other livelihoods and even given cash for planting new trees in the degraded mangrove forests.

But not all villages can expect this kind of help, while other, more traditional livelihoods have largely disappeared. The Forest Trends report found that many charcoal producers were formerly fishers. They had been driven from this work by a decline in fish stocks – due to industrial overfishing and, in a cruel irony, mangrove loss – as well as by government regulations that impose barriers on small-scale fishers.

Ko Naing, a charcoal trader from Kyauk Kar village on the coast of Palaw Township, another production centre, said that more than two thirds of Kyauk Kar’s households still depend on charcoal to earn a living.

“Frankly speaking, [the decrease in production] is because of mangrove deforestation,” he told Frontier. “When the wood becomes scarce, the production of charcoal also decreases. I can’t even obtain enough to sell to Thailand once a month. I can only sell twice in three months. But the livelihood of the entire [coastal] region depends on this. It’s as if we have no other option but to continue working in this industry.”

Residents of Kyauk Kar have switched from mangroves to using other kinds of wood collected from mountains inland to make charcoal. However, this is a less lucrative option, according to Ko Naing. While mangrove charcoal can fetch up to 5 baht ($0.14) per kilogramme, inferior charcoal produced with wood from the mountains only sells for 3.5 or 4 baht.

Villages in Kyunsu have had to make a similar adaptation. “Because there are fewer mangroves, charcoal is being made only with wood from the mountain forests,” said Daw Htay Htay, a resident of the township’s Maw Khaung Tone village.

Many producers have also reduced their operations. Ma Aye, who lives in the Karathuri area of Bokpyin, said a decade ago she produced charcoal using two 4.5-metre kilns, but now she uses a single 3-metre kiln.

Ko Swam, who owns the warehouse in Ranong, said the Myanmar charcoal producers who sell to him are not big businesspeople, so have limited means to switch to other businesses. He added that some had taken jobs at rubber, durian and oil palm plantations, but this arduous work is often only seasonal, and is poorly paid.

Ko Naing, the trader from Kyauk Kar, said the production of charcoal “is not good for the environment” and no longer provides a reliable living for communities, so authorities, entrepreneurs and aid organisations could help by sponsoring other local industries.

“The entire community relies on this business,” he said. “It would be good if people could offer alternatives.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym

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