Sun, Jun 10, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Chinese love for oak is a mixed blessing for France

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Yawen Chen  /  Reuters, PARIS and BEIJING

Times are good for oak tree growers in France.

Exports of oak logs have soared and so have prices, largely because of demand from China. Beijing last year banned commercial timber harvests and Chinese millennials have developed a taste for high-quality wooden floors and furniture from Europe.

However, boom for France’s exporters could mean bust for some of the country’s 550 sawmills.

French oak producers have traditionally sold oak logs to the mills, which then cut them into lumber for making products ranging from floors and furniture to coffins and wine barrels.

However, now private forest owners have started selling logs directly to Chinese buyers, because they are ready to pay higher prices and do the processing themselves.

This has left many French sawmills short of wood to process and struggling to fulfill orders.

“The problem is that oak has never been as expensive in France and we, the processors, have never had as little of it,” Margaritelli Fontaines head David Chavot said at the sawmill in eastern France.

Sawmills with big stocks of oak are safe for now, but will face problems buying new stock, because they cannot afford the higher prices, National Forest Association head Nicolas Douzain-Didier said.

Smaller ones will lose customers and shed jobs, he said.

“The most fragile will go under, one after another,” Douzain-Didier said.

About 26,000 jobs are directly linked to the oak industry in France, the world’s third-largest producer. By late March, about 80 percent of French sawmills had 30 percent less stock than they needed to fulfill orders.

Any job losses would be politically awkward for French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made reducing unemployment a priority. The sawmill producers have appealed to him for help, but a crisis meeting organized by French Minister of Agriculture Stephane Travert with producers and sawmill bosses in March failed to secure a compromise.

France has tried to regulate the industry by imposing an “EU label” on logs coming from public forests, meaning they must be processed in the EU.

However, French sawmills have said there are ways to bypass the EU label system and want a similar label applied to privately owned forests, which account for nearly 80 percent of wooded areas in France.

For oak growers, who usually cut trees when they are between 100 and 150 years old, the price increase is a welcome rebound after a sharp fall in the late 2000s caused by low demand.

“They [the sawmills] need to live, but so do we,” said Antoine d’Amecourt, who led the private forest owners at the March meeting with Travert.

“Owners prefer the wood to be processed in France, but they need to regenerate forests for the next generations,” he said, explaining it made little difference where the oak is processed.

China is the world’s largest timber importer and its needs are growing, Chinese officials have said.

To meet the booming demand, Chinese manufacturers have had to buy oak abroad since commercial timber harvests were banned to protect natural forests after decades of overcutting.

In Foshan, a furniture trading hub in China’s Guangdong Province, traders have said demand is propped up by young and affluent people who like European interior design.

Almost 90 percent of solid composite wooden floors in China are now made of oak, a sharp rise from the early 2000s, Chinese floor-maker Fudeli Flooring (富得利地板) said.

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