A Thai force dubbed the “Rambo Army” could not stop the gangs, armed with battlefield weaponry, as they scoured the forests. Neither could a brave activist, gunned down when he came to investigate. Nor, apparently, can governments across Southeast Asia.
The root of the conflicts and bloodshed? Rosewood.
The richly hued, brownish hardwood is being illegally ripped from Southeast Asian forests, then smuggled by sea and air to be turned into Chinese furniture that can sell for hundreds of thousands of yuan. Some of it also ends up in the finest US guitars, or as billiard cues.
The felling, almost all of it illegal, has increased dramatically in recent years and driven the region’s rosewood to the brink of extinction.
“This is not just an environmental issue. It drives corruption and criminal networks. There is a lot of violence and blood spilled before the rosewood ends up in someone’s living room,” says Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-governmental group based in London. “It’s one of the most expensive woods in the world. That’s why there is a war for it.”
In Koh Kong, a jungle region of southwestern Cambodia where most villagers earn less than US$2 a day, finding a rosewood tree is better than winning the lottery. A cubic meter of top-grade rosewood last year could be sold for up to US$2,700 to middlemen who hover around forests and construction sites of dams and roads in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Various species grow in Southeast Asia and countries including India, Brazil and Madagascar. Nearly all source nations have banned felling and export of unprocessed rosewood, allowing harvesting only in special cases such as clearing forests for dam construction.
The volume of rosewood consumed by China alone suggests that most was obtained illegally. China imported US$600 million worth last year, according to official Chinese documents made available by James Hewitt, an expert on the illegal timber trade at the London think tank Chatham House. About half came from Southeast Asian countries.
The documents also show that China’s appetite is soaring — from just 66,000 cubic meters in 2005 to 500,000 cubic meters last year. Rosewood has long been prized in China, and the dramatic growth of its wealthy class is cited as the main reason for the surge in exploitation.
The hunt for rosewood ignites violence between officials and smugglers, and sometimes among rival gangs.
The EIA estimates that nearly 50 Cambodian loggers and smugglers have been killed in Thailand and others arrested over the past two years in clashes, with Thais also suffering casualties.
In Koh Kong, one of the country’s leading environmental activists, Chut Wutty, was shot dead in April while investigating illegal rosewood logging by Timbergreen, a company with no known address that is believed to be a hook-up of gangs and officials.
In Thailand’s northeast, authorities last year formed what they called a “Rambo Army” of 11-man units of armed forestry rangers to target the traffickers who cross the porous frontier from Cambodia, often in well-armed bands. The Rambo Army was disbanded after a three-month operation due to lack of funds.
Once the smuggled rosewood snakes its way to furniture makers in China, often via Vietnam, the price escalates. A sofa and chair set of high-quality hongmu, or rosewood, can sell for US$320,000, according to the China Daily. A four-poster bed was seen by the EIA with a US$1 million price tag.
Some rosewood makes its way to the US and Europe. A number of Chinese Web sites offer rosewood products to Western customers.
US authorities in 2009 and last year raided the Tennessee plants of the Gibson Guitar Corp, seizing US$500,000 worth of imported ebony and rosewood that was to be used in fingerboards. Gibson paid US$350,000 in penalties in August to settle federal charges of illegally importing ebony, but rosewood was not part of the charges.
Environmental groups suspect many such rosewood sales violate US and EU laws.
“I would be very interested to see how American and European outlets prove that the products they are selling come from legally felled wood,” said Doherty of the EIA, which has been investigating the rosewood trade for several years. “In countries with widespread corruption and fraud, you need an independent monitor on the ground and that is not happening. When I look at products in American stores, I have my doubts.”
In recent years, Chinese companies have begun building dams in Koh Kong, making inroads into one of the region’s largest tracts of wilderness, and Cambodian logging groups were awarded licenses to log out areas the dams will flood.
According to foreign conservationists and the Cambodian human rights group LICADHO, which has investigators in Koh Kong, the work created an opportunity for “tree laundering.” They say logging companies falsified documents to make it appear their wood came from permitted areas when it was actually harvested up to 50km away.