Endangered Siamese rosewood has been logged to the brink of extinction in the Mekong region, including in the remote forests of Cambodia, fuelled by China’s demand for faux antique furniture, according to a report released yesterday by an environmental monitoring group.
The report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which is the culmination of a decadelong undercover investigation, describes how the desire for luxury Ming and Qing dynasty reproductions and artwork, known as hongmu, has left “a bloody trail of death, violence and corruption in its wake”.
“Siamese rosewood has become so rare and valuable that the practice of logging it is now more akin to wildlife poaching,” the report says.
The rosewood is logged in remote jungles, such as those in Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces, and funnelled through a host of laundering operations in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam operated by “a web of traders, middlemen and corrupt officials [who] make their fortunes by channeling rosewood . . . to the glitzy furniture showrooms of China”.
Faith Doherty, EIA’s forest campaign team leader, said in an email yesterday that the demand for the highly prized timber perpetuated illegal logging.
“The rosewood industry is extremely lucrative – millions and millions of dollars are earned – plus the more difficult Siam[ese] rosewood is to get, the higher the price, the more valuable Siam[ese] rosewood becomes,” she said.
Doherty added that the numerous deaths of Cambodian loggers at the hands of Thai security forces were directly linked to the Chinese trade.
In Cambodia, Siamese rosewood is protected under the 2002 Forestry Law. But a combination of weak enforcement and corruption, coupled with soaring Chinese demand, has “turned forests into conflict zones”, according to the report.
Under the cover of darkness, loggers flood into Thailand’s national parks across Cambodia’s porous border, carrying the tools of the trade: chainsaws, guns and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
“When loggers are confronted by enforcement officers, violence often ensues,” the report, titled Routes of Extinction, states. “Methamphetamines … are regularly used as a stimulant to overcome fatigue and as a form of payment for loggers from border communities blighted by drug addiction,” it adds.
At least 69 Cambodians were shot dead by Thai security forces last year. In a single day in March this year, 12 illegal loggers were reported to have been shot dead by Thai forces near the border with Preah Vihear province. Thailand denied the killings took place.
In one example of the cross-border trade, undercover EIA investigators posing as buyers met Thai trader Promphan Suttisaragorn, a representative of a company claiming to source Siamese rosewood from high-level officials in Cambodia.
He told the investigators that “rosewood logged in Thailand was often smuggled into Cambodia and re-exported into Thailand to obscure its origin”.
The cost of rosewood has spiked in recent years, the report notes, with traders often warehousing timber until prices rise. Suttisaragorn, whose company the Post could not reach yesterday, allegedly offered to sell the EIA team 10,000 cubic metres for $50 million.
“Logging tycoons with links to high-ranking officials are plundering Cambodia’s natural resources at an alarming rate,” Neil Loughlin, technical adviser at rights group Adhoc, said yesterday. “Cambodia’s rich natural resources, lax enforcement and culture of corruption means it is ideal for exploitation to fuel China’s voracious appetite for luxury timber.”
Thon Sarath, chief of administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said the government was cooperating with neighbouring countries to try to end the flow of rosewood to China.
He added that if evidence of connections between high-level officials and illegal logging syndicates were discovered, they should be reported to the authorities.
“We tried to do a lot of things already to act against the [illegal] timber trade,” he said.
Forestry Administration director Chheng Kimsun and Ung Samath, its deputy director, could not be reached.
Cheng Hongbo, chief of the Chinese embassy’s political section, said that Beijing had policies in place to tackle environmental degradation and organised crime.
“China has made enviromental protection one of its basic national policies, [and regards] the realization of sustainable development as an important strategy and carried out measures for ... ecological environment protection,” he said in an email.
“The Chinese government will surely crack down [on] any illegal trade and organized crime networks.”
China's efforts to curb the border trade since the species was listed as protected last year have led to prices as high as $80,000 per tonne for logs cut from the 33 species China defines as suitable for hongmu, the report says.
The Chinese government has also “provided considerable financial incentives to promote the hongmu industry. The rationale behind investment and state backing for an industry which is systematically destroying its own supply chain is unclear,” it adds.
But wealthy elites in China continue to drive the trade and expand into new species as old ones are depleted, while a “venerable cultural tradition serves as a cover for rampant speculation”.
“As species deplete, the industry will want to expand their definition and . . . deplete their own supply chain. This is not an industry that looks long term, but at what they can get now,” EIA’s Doherty said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA