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China protects own timber while smuggling rare woods

NANXUN, China—China's voracious appetite for timber is threatening exotic forests as far away as Brazil, West Africa, Indonesia and Russia's Far East.

Much of the timber bound for Chinese sawmills comes from countries where illegal logging is rampant. Environmental groups are sounding an alarm, saying the trade in illegal timber fosters corruption and encourages the devastation of some of the globe's most fragile regions.

In a report last month, one watchdog group described China as "the largest buyer of stolen timber in the world."

The British-based Environmental Investigation Agency said it had uncovered "the world's biggest timber smuggling racket"—a route controlled by crime syndicates that send some 20 shiploads a month of exotic hardwood logs from Indonesia to China.

The issue reaches all the way to U.S. retail showrooms, where cheap Chinese bedroom furniture has made dramatic inroads. In November, the Bush administration slapped tariffs on China, charging that wooden furniture is being "dumped" below cost on the U.S. market.

While many U.S. consumers don't bother to ask—or don't care—about the source of wood products, ecology experts say rampant illegal logging is having a dramatic impact on places such as Indonesia, site of the last big undisturbed forest wilderness in the Asia-Pacific region. The logging destroys habitat for myriad species, including some that are facing extinction and exposes local people to landslides and floods.

China's timber imports were relatively modest in 1998, when devastating floods along the Yangtze River killed some 2,500 people. Experts blamed the floods on deforestation. As a result, China banned logging in natural forests. It turned to foreign timber, removing tariffs and promoting wood-processing industries.

Since then, Chinese imports of logs, semi-processed wood and forest products have nearly tripled, turning small cities such as Nanxun in coastal Zhejiang province into export hubs with a global reach.

Jiang Miaogen, a section chief with the Zhejiang Province Office for Industry and Commerce, smiled as he described the emergence of 370 private factories to make wood flooring in Nanxun, a canal port 60 miles west of Shanghai.

"All these companies have developed very rapidly over the last three to five years," Jiang said.

Chinese officials insist that timber coming into the country is checked by customs officials to make certain it's legal. They add that timber-exporting countries should take responsibility for safeguarding their forests.

"They are better suited to monitor the situation than the Chinese government. China doesn't have any instrument to take action," said Xu Jintao, a scholar at the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Several environmentalists said China's laws are routinely flouted.

"At the policy level, they always say, `We will try to step up efforts to tackle smuggling.' But actually there is such a huge need for timber. The local customs officials keep one eye open and one eye closed," said Wen Bo, a Beijing-based expert with Pacific Environment, a U.S. advocacy group.

Some experts say China is a part of a lengthy chain in which illegal logs are "laundered" on the way to market. Once hewn, the logs are transported on the high seas and given forged papers, processed in China, then exported to Western markets or purchased by Chinese consumers.

In its Feb. 17 report, the Environmental Investigation Agency estimated that 44 percent of China's timber imports are illegal. Other watchdog groups have said that between a third and a half of China's timber imports were logged illegally.

The U.S. timber industry, often at odds with environmentalists, agrees that the problem is serious.

"China's sources for hardwood log imports reads like a `Who's Who' of countries with problems with illegal logging," says a report issued in November for the American Forest & Paper Association, a U.S. trade group.

The report estimated that 50 percent of China's hardwood log imports from Russia and West Africa "may be considered to be of `suspicious' or illegal origin."

China is now the world's second biggest importer of logs. Its main timber suppliers are Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia, although Papua New Guinea, Gabon, Burma, Cambodia, New Zealand and Brazil are also important. Many of those countries face social conflicts over logging and land use. China's timber contracts with Burma give its military regime an economic lifeline.

The Environmental Investigation Agency report said logging theft from Indonesia "is being organized by powerful syndicates of brokers and fixers" that can gin up phony documents for shipment to China.

Most of the illegal timber is merbau, a luxurious and valuable hardwood, taken from Indonesia's Papua province to China, said Julian Newman, a researcher for the group. He said Indonesia's military is deeply involved in illegal logging in Papua.

"There's still forest in the uplands, but it is being stripped away quickly," he said in a telephone interview from Jakarta.

Indonesia banned the export of merbau logs in 2001, but illegal shipments have increased even faster than the once-legal ones, the EIA report said.

Piles of Indonesian merbau logs sat at wharves in Nanxun one recent day.

Merbau wood flooring, manufactured in China, is widely available in the United States, and Chinese producers say Western buyers rarely ask about the origin of wood.

"Our clients are concerned about the type and quality of wood that is used. But nobody has ever asked us if the source of the wood is legal or illegal," said Zhang Enjiu, the president of Jiusheng Flooring Co., one of China's largest wood flooring manufacturers.

Showrooms around Nanxun display exotic floorings, such as teak and cherry from Burma, mahogany from Brazil, iroko from West Africa, and Indonesian merbau.

China's timber binge also sates rising domestic demand, spurred by a housing and home renovation boom.

Even as China uses more timber, its own forests are protected by the logging ban.

Indeed, an aggressive tree-planting campaign has helped forest coverage grow from 16.2 percent in 1997 to 18 percent in 2003. The goal is to reach 20 percent by 2010.

"A lot of countries criticize China's logging ban for transferring the ecological crisis to other countries," said Lu Zhi, country director in China for Conservation International, a U.S.-based group trying to protect the world's biodiversity hotspots.

As long as hardwood supplies last, factory owners say they'll pursue global market share.

Fresh from a convention in Las Vegas, Zhang marveled at strong demand in the United States, convinced that his Jiusheng Flooring company can boost sales.

"Production costs in China are relatively low," Zhang said. "There is no country that can really compete."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): china+illegaltimber

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