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Burma: The Resource Curse

As part of a class at the UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, I traveled to Burma last spring to report on China's growing trade with Burma, which is rapidly depleting forests and has created a thriving trade in exotic animals.

As soon as I arrived in Burma posing as a tourist, I was asked to hand over my passport in return for a "foreign visitor card." I had to show the card at numerous military checkpoints throughout my travels.

My first stop was the city of Kengtung in Shan State in the northern part of the country. As I made my way outside this former British outpost, I could hear the deafening buzz of cicadas in what remains of the area's monsoon forest.

The Burmese city of Mong La

The Burmese city of Mong La sits on the border of China.

While roughly half of the remaining forests in mainland Southeast Asia are in Burma, they are rapidly disappearing to fuel China's surging economy. Burma suffers from what some call a "resource curse" -- while its abundant timber and other precious commodities have become prime targets for China and other neighboring countries, the money generated benefits Burma's military regime and does little to help local residents.

In Shan State, I saw another phenomenon underway. Cleared teak forests have quickly made way for vast rubber plantations to satisfy the growing demand in China for cars.

There's also a thriving trade in Burmese exotic wildlife. Rapid deforestation has left many endangered animals vulnerable to capture without the protective canopy of their natural habitat.

Burma map

As the accompanying slideshow reveals, I found evidence of the trade in the city of Mong La along the Chinese border. The biproducts of endangered animals, such as leopards and tigers, are sold openly in markets with no regard for international restrictions. I also came across an Asian Black Bear farm. I photographed bears kept in small cages and captured for the extraction of their bile. Many Chinese consider the bile to be a potent elixir that promotes good health.

--Howard Hsu

Related Story
Burma: The Chinese Connection
Orlando de Guzman reports from the Burma-China border, where Chinese boomtowns are sprouting up, bankrolled in large part by the trade in narcotics, jade and timber from Burma. Despite international sanctions, trade with China along the historic Burma Road has become a lifeline for the Burmese military regime.