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China’s bloody timber trail

The world’s most precious trees are being rapidly logged into extinction in countries such as Cambodia and served up to Chinese consumers as “staggeringly” expensive ornate furniture with the complicity of Beijing, a comprehensive investigation into the trade has found.

Appetite For Destruction: China’s trade in illegal timber, a report from the independent campaigning organisation Environmental Investigation Agency which was launched yesterday in Beijing, found that while the US, EU and Australia have taken legislative action to stop the illegal timber trade, China lags behind.

Chinese trade data from the United Nations Comtrade shows that in 2011 alone 9,973 cubic metres of precious logs were bought by China from Cambodia for a total of almost US$22 million, with a grand total of more than 32,000 cubic metres being imported between 2007 and 2011.

Jago Wadley, lead forest campaigner for EIA, said yesterday that the Chinese government was to an extent engaged on the issue and starting to listen, particularly as legislation prohibiting the purchase of illegal timber products passed recently in countries such as the US had created genuine leverage on the issue.

“What we’ve identified is that China’s domestic consumption is the elephant in the room,” he said.

Though China now needs to certify wood products it sells on to the US, EU and Australia were not illegally logged, its domestic market remained enormous and the country is now the biggest consumer of illegal timber in the world, he said.  

Marcus Hardtke, who was a backer funneling funds to outspoken Cambodian anti-logging activist Chut Wutty until he was gunned down in April this year by a military police officer, said the rosewood fad in China was obscene.

“It’s almost in a league with rhino horns and ivory. It’s a kind of madness. I mean there is no rational explanation for it. it’s just a weird fashion. The more exclusive it is the higher the price is,” he said.

The report found that although it was impossible to determine the exact volume of illegally logged wood entering China, it is estimated that between 36 million and 120 million cubic metres of the country’s 180 million cubic metre timber imports in 2011 may have been illegal.

Highly conservative trade data analysis of just half of Chinese timber products showed that at least 18.5 million cubic metres of illegally felled logs and timber were sold in China in 2011, or “enough to fill around 900,000 standard 20ft shipping containers”.




EIA’s most conservative estimate puts the amount of illegally logged timber in China at $3.7 billion in 2011 alone.

The EIA was trying to push the Chinese government to draft legislation outlawing the domestic market for products made from timber illegally logged abroad, Wadley said.

Furniture in China made from prized rosewood timber costs up to $720 per kilogram while a set of chairs and a sofa fetched $320,000, the EIA found.

“The price of high-end rosewood furniture in China is staggering, reaching a million dollars for individual pieces made from the rarest woods and displaying the most exquisite craftsmanship,” the report said, adding that the largest source for this wood was the Mekong region.

Hardtke said it was time Cambodia joined a regional push with Thailand and Vietnam to have rosewood varieties listed on the Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, even though the wood was almost extinct in the Kingdom already.

“They have to support it, it will be regional. It was already tried two and half years ago at the last CITES meeting but apparently Cambodia and Laos rejected it, which was a stupid thing to do,” he said.

Officials at the Forestry Administration, Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Foreign Affairs either could not be reached yesterday or hung up on reporters.

EIA’s report calls for the Chinese government to also push to have luxury wood varieties that are highly attractive to illegal loggers to be listed on CITES II.

Yang Tianyue, spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh said that at this stage he had no comment.

Citing a study by INTERPOL and the United Nations Environment Program, the EIA report put the global trade in illegal timber at between $30 billion and $100 billion per year.

“The World Bank calculates that an area the size of a football field is cleared by illegal loggers every two seconds,” the report stated.

In China, a huge rise in demand over the past decade for ornate replica hongmu furniture, a retro revival of styles from the Qing and Ming dynasties, was earning traders huge dollars while those who logged the wood in countries such as Cambodia received peanuts, EIA pointed out.

With some varieties on the brink of extinction in Cambodia and not much further off in Thailand, the trade was fueling violent conflict as Cambodians braved the risk of being shot by Thai soldiers to fell their remaining trees.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Boyle at david.boyle@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from May Titthara

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