China timber demand stokes Southeast Asia tensions

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Soaring demand from China’s new wealthy is fuelling the illicit trade in rare southeast Asian luxury wood, stoking political tensions over natural resource flows from the region’s nations to their giant neighbour to the north.

Hunger for neoclassical red-wood furniture has raised prices for some forms of timber to tens of thousands of dollars per cubic metre and sparked deadly clashes between tree poachers and rangers in the sprawling forests of the Mekong region. The problem has added to alarm over the cross-border stream to China of other high-value products such as ivory, shark’s fins and jade.

A report published on Thursday by Global Witness, the London-based campaign group, highlights fresh concerns about how Cambodia, a close ally of China, has allowed the luxury timber business to flourish by relaxing legal safeguards.

“China’s craze for chic furniture is driving a multimillion black market trade in illegal logs . . . across the Mekong,” said Megan MacInnes, a campaigner at Global Witness. “China urgently needs to introduce regulations to stem the import of illegally sourced timber and help put an end to the trade’s legacy of violence, intimidation and environmental harm.”

The flourishing trade risks raising geopolitical tensions through incidents such as the detention last month of more than 100 alleged Chinese loggers in the northern Myanmar state of Kachin, where timber is widely seen as a driver of conflict between government forces and ethnic militias.

In Thailand, dozens of forest rangers have been killed or wounded in the past two years in firefights with Cambodian wood poachers. Thai authorities said last month they had intercepted a cargo of rosewood that had been sent to neighbouring Laos for false documentation, then shipped back to Thailand en route to China. The Laos state media played down the story, saying only a small amount of rosewood had been found.

Efforts to protect the iconic Siamese rosewood by listing it two years ago as an internationally protected species, exportable only under licence, are failing in the face of a boom in demand for modern versions of intricate traditional Chinese furniture, environmental officials, activists and law enforcement agencies say. Prices for the rich red-hued timber have soared as high as $50,000 per cubic metre. Available trade data, though patchy, suggest imports of luxury red woods such as rosewoods to China began to climb sharply in 2013.

Tensions between Mekong countries and China broke to the surface at a regional meeting in December of law enforcement agencies, forestry officials and others involved in overseeing the protection of Siamese rosewood and other species, according to people who attended. While delegates from the Mekong states said Beijing needed to do more to cut demand, Chinese officials insisted the answer was better law enforcement in source countries.

“The real battle is to make it socially unacceptable to consume these goods,” said one person who attended the talks. “It’s what has worked in Europe and North America.”

Cites, the international organisation in charge of listing protected plant and animal species, said the trade in Siamese rosewood had escalated and needed to be dealt with urgently, not least by countries that import it. “It is lucrative and well organised and must be tackled in the same way as other transnational organised crimes,” said John Scanlon, the group’s secretary-general.


Price per cubic metre of some varieties of luxury red wood

Campaigners say another dimension of the problem is that governments such as Cambodia have chosen to ease rather than restrict exploitation of luxury timber. The Global Witness report alleges legal moves in Phnom Penh, such as turning protected areas into agricultural land concessions, have given Try Pheap, a local tycoon, a wide licence to exploit luxury timber, even extending to rights to buy up illegally logged rosewood seized by the authorities.

Mr Try Pheap did not respond to a request for comment on the role law changes had played in helping him achieve his market position. Prak Vuthy, general manager of MDS Import Export, one of Mr Try Pheap’s companies, said the group was not involved in any wrongdoing.

Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesman, defended the rosewood rights granted to Mr Try Pheap. He said keeping the industry in the hands of one or two people made it easier for authorities to monitor it and collect any taxes due.

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