PINLEBU, Myanmar – The hills of northern Myanmar's Sagaing region were so legendarily thick with forests that in the days of kings, condemned criminals were ordered into the woods as a death sentence. Today illegal logging has left vast swaths of bare patches, with only a handful of old-growth stands.
Despite a temporary ban on all logging by the Southeast Asian country's new government, the Associated Press found in a trip to the remote region that loggers are still cutting down some of the remaining old trees. Piles of such wood have been confiscated by the government, but villagers said officials can be bribed to let it through.
Massive amounts of teak, rosewood and other hardwoods have been illegally cut and exported from Myanmar since 2011, much of it stripped from the Sagaing region, floated on the Irrawaddy River and transported to neighboring China and India.
Myanmar has lost more than a quarter of its forests since 1990, according to the U.N. The losses have been greatest in the north, in Sagaing and neighboring Shan and Kachin states.
"Logging companies usually chop down trees more than they actually are permitted," said Min Min, a farmer and environmental activist who previously worked transporting illegally cut logs. "According to my experience, I've never seen the government take action against the companies chopping down any size of trees they wanted."
Four activists in Sagaing told The Associated Press that logging appeared to be continuing on a small scale despite the temporary ban, based lumber they have seen being transported.
Those arrested have included members of Myanmar's military, which no longer rules the country but remains powerful. Burmese media reported last week that nearly three tons of rosewood were seized from a military vehicle in Sagaing.
This summer, AP reporters rode jeeps and motorbikes for 20 hours over rough, muddy roads to reach villages in northern Sagaing, meeting former illegal loggers, local villagers and elephant keepers. Despite its remoteness, vast swaths of hillsides and valleys were bald patches.
Young trees, perhaps 10 years old, stand near the stumps of ancestors that were clearly many times larger. A few old-growth stands remain in small community forests.
"We used to be so afraid of coming to the forest alone because it was too forested," said Aung Moe Kyaw, a local environmental activist. "Now, as you see, it is bald and no more big trees. The big trees are all gone now."
Mountains of recently cut illegal timber worth millions lie in villages across the region; most of the timber the AP team saw was rosewood. Activists say the wood has been seized by the government mostly since late 2015, but that loggers commonly have been able to get it back by bribing officials.
The AP team traveling witnessed loggers cutting wood outside Katha, a Sagaing town that is a transit hub for the trade. An activist traveling with the journalists said the logging was illegal and contacted forest department officials, who detained the loggers and seized their equipment.
Activists say much illegally cut timber is hauled to Katha, transported on the Irrawaddy and delivered on various paths to China's western Yunan province. They say bribes allow illegal loads to pass official gates.
Min Min said a former boss would bribe police and forest department officials ahead of time, so that when Min Min arrived at the gate, the officials would let him go without checking his truck.
"The officials protect us for giving bribes, and sometimes they even come with us on the truck to show us the way to get to our final destination," he said.
Myo Min, national director of the forestry department, said Thursday there are "many individual bribery cases, but not all staff from the forest department is involved. ... We have taken action against bribe-taking staff in the past and are still working on it now."
Myo Min said the department has taken action against staff in the Katha district in the past. But the district's director, Soe Tint, denied that officials have cooperated in illegal logging.
How big is Myanmar's smuggling? From 2011 to 2014, Myanmar reported $2.83 billion in exports of hardwood in the rough, while trading partners reported imports of $5.57 billion. Illegal logging is likely to account for some of that $2.74 billion discrepancy. India and China are by far the biggest consumers.
Since 2014, Myanmar has banned exporting of raw timber logs. In May, the new elected government announced a nationwide logging ban for this fiscal year, which ends March 31.
Myo Min, the forestry director, said last month that the government has seized more than 16,000 tons of illegally cut logs since April, and that more than 1,000 criminal cases have been filed in that time.
Aung Moe Kyaw, the activist, said simply having members of Parliament pay attention to the issue is an improvement.
"If the new government could protect these forests for a few years," he said, "it would actually give the chance for these forests to live."