Southeast Asian Rainforests, Black-Market Timber, U.S. Consumption

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“Mekong forests are also home to a range of endangered animals,
including the clouded leopard, tiger, and Malayan sun bear.”
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NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS

U.S. Major Importer of Illegal Asian Timber, Study Says
Stefan Lovgren for National Geographic News
May 13, 2008

Vietnam has become a hub for processing Asia’s
illegally logged timber, much of which is sold in
the United States as outdoor furniture,
conservationists say.

In a report released in March, the U.K.-based
nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency
(EIA) and its Indonesian partner Telapak warned
that the illegal timber trade is threatening some
of the last intact forests in Southeast Asia,
especially in Laos.

“Despite wide awareness of the problem of illegal
logging and a series of political commitments to
tackle the issue, demand for cut-price wood
products is still fuelling the illegal
destruction of some of the worlds most
significant remaining tropical forests,” said
Julian Newman, head of the EIA’s forest campaign
program.

It is currently legal in the United States to
import illegally sourced wood products. But
legislation now under consideration in the U.S.
Congress would ban imports of wood products
derived from illegally harvested timber.

Endangered Species at Greater Risk

EIA estimates that the illegal logging business,
which the agency says is orchestrated by
cross-border criminal syndicates working with
corrupt officials, costs developing countries
some 10 billion to 15 billion U.S. dollars a year.

A rise in timber prices has prompted some
wood-producing countries, such as Indonesia, to
clamp down on illegal logging.

Other countries, such as China and Vietnam, have
taken measures to sharply reduce all logging of
their own forests, while importing timber from
neighboring countries for their growing
timber-processing industries.

Around 60 percent of the trade in tropical timber
moves between the countries of southern and
eastern Asia, according to EIA.

“One of the biggest shifts in the timber industry
in Asia over the last decade or so has been the
emergence of a huge wood-processing industry in
China and Vietnam,” said Newman.

The Mekong region-which includes Vietnam,
Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and
China-has some of the most valuable and
vulnerable tree species sought by the
international timber trade, including rosewood,
keruing, teak, and yellow balau.

Mekong forests are also home to a range of
endangered animals, including the clouded
leopard, tiger, and Malayan sun bear.

Many of the remaining forests in the region have
been so heavily logged that they are now of
critically low quality. In Laos, for example,
only around 10 percent of forests remain
commercially viable, according to the report.

Undercover Investigations

In Vietnam logging is restricted to 5.3 million
cubic feet (150,000 cubic meters) from forests
grown for timber production.

To satisfy its demand for raw products, Vietnam
is exploiting the forests of neighboring Laos
despite Laotian laws, which ban the export of
logs and cut timber, the EIA report claims.

In the Vietnamese port of Vinh, undercover
investigators found piles of huge logs from Laos
awaiting sale.

At one border crossing 45 trucks carrying logs
were seen lining up on the Laos side waiting to
cross into Vietnam.

The agencies estimate that at least 17.7 million
cubic feet (500,000 cubic meters) of logs move
illegally from Laos to Vietnam every year.

“This trade is organized by informal networks
involving timber brokers and government and
military officials on both sides of the border,”
Newman said.

“The losers are the rural communities [in Laos]
who traditionally rely on forests for their
livelihood.”

According to the Laotian government, forest cover
in the country has declined from 70 percent in
the 1970s to 40 percent today.

Large volumes of timber from Laos also go to
China’s burgeoning wood-processing industry,
researchers say.

Jeff Hayward is the verification manager of the
SmartWood Program for the Rainforest Alliance in
Washington, D.C.

“The EIA study illustrates the ways and means for
illicit timber to end up in the workshops of
Vietnam, resulting in consumers [in Europe and
the United States] unwittingly buying furniture
that comes at the cost of forests in Laos and
Cambodia,” he said.

New Legislation

Vietnam’s furniture exports reached U.S. $2.4
billion in 2007, a ten-fold increase since 2000.

The United States is by far the largest market
for Vietnamese wooden furniture, accounting for
almost 40 percent of the exports.

“Illegal logging and trade are rife, but most
businesses don’t ask hard questions about the
source of the wood they buy, because they simply
don’t have to do so,” said Andrea Johnson, the
forest campaigns coordinator for EIA in
Washington, D.C.

“Until consumer markets like the U.S. change
their no-questions-asked policy, irreplaceable
forests from Indonesia to Vietnam to Honduras to
the Congo are going to continue to end up as
dining room tables and porch swings.”

The U.S. legislation being considered prohibits
the import or trade of illegally sourced timber
and wood products.

The bill has broad political support and is
backed by virtually all major environmental
organizations and the U.S. timber industry.

Illegal logging costs U.S. companies as much as a
billion U.S. dollars a year in lost exports and
reduces prices for timber products, according to
the American Forest and Paper Association.

“This law will send a major signal to the global
timber sector that the world’s largest consumer
market is closing its doors to illegal wood,”
Johnson said.

“Companies who source on the up-and-up and
conduct strong due diligence will now be rewarded
with market share rather than undercut by cheaper
illegal products.”

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

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