Luxury Wood Trade to China Revealed

Thousands of cubic meters of luxury wood is being shipped from Cambodia to China each year, according to official Chinese import documents shown to The Cambodia Daily.

Rosewood loggers, several of whom are dressed in Cambodian military and police uniforms, are seen last year in Oddar Meanchey province.

According to the data, some 36,000 cubic meters of logs under the “rosewood” category have been recorded entering China from Cambodia between January 2007 and the end of August this year.

The General Administration of the People’s Republic of China, or China Customs, applies a specific import code for imported “rosewood,” and while it applies to many species of luxury wood from around the world, the two true rosewood species found in Cambodia, Dalbergia bariensis and Dalbergia cochinchinensis, are included.

The China Customs data also show that each year, just under 10,000 cubic meters of logs and about 15,000 cubic meters of sawn wood, of all kinds of timber, have been imported from Cambodia to various ports in China since 2005.

Cambodia’s 2002 Forestry Law states that the logging of rare tree species such as rosewood is strictly prohibited. And at least 30 Cambodians have been killed by Thai border forces so far this year while trying to illegally log rosewood inside Thai territory to supply a massive illicit demand for the wood.

Authorities have said that the rosewood is ultimately destined for markets in Vietnam and China.

Last year, about 9,800 cubic meters of logs from Cambodia under the rosewood category was recorded by China Customs, owing largely to three large shipments recorded by the Shanghai customs district, but with the “importer,” listed in the southern city of Zhaoqing, Guangdong province. This year, up to the end of August, about 4,300 cubic meters under the rosewood category has been brought into China from Cambodia, the data show.

Since 2007, the official value of imports under the rosewood category from Cambodia was registered as $61 million by China Customs. But the valuable and rare wood is likely worth considerably more when it arrives in China, where rosewood fetches thousands of dollars per cubic meter in the retail market.

“‘Rosewood’ accounts for most of the volume and import value of the logs which China reports as imports from Cambodia,” said James Hewitt, a London-based independent timber consultant who has analyzed the raw data from China Customs to determine the import figures.

Mr. Hewitt added that the trade with China is not just for rosewood.

“On an annual basis, the import value and volume of logs other than ‘rosewood’ has tended to amount to approximately US$2 million and 1,000 cubic meters,” Mr. Hewitt said.

China also imports massive amounts of luxury timber from Vietnam—some of which may have originated in Cambodia—and further afield.

A report by London-based policy organization Chatham House, which also used Mr. Hewitt’s analysis of China Customs data, said China imported a total of 500,000 cubic meters of wood under the rosewood category from all countries in 2011.

Cambodia’s official export figures from the Ministry of Commerce only count exports of “processed wood,” which raises questions about the export of luxury wood species to China.

“The policy of the government doesn’t allow any timber exports unless it’s processed, like furniture,” Forestry Administration spokesman Thun Sarath explained yesterday.

However, some exports of luxury timber have been allowed, as a temporary exception, to companies clearing forest to make way for hydropower dams, Mr. Sarath said, adding that he could not say whether this logging exception accounted for the exports to China.

While the Forestry Law prohibits the logging of rosewood and other luxury woods, the law also contains a loophole where logging of rare wood can be authorized “under conditions” proposed by the Forestry Administration. The law does not define what those conditions may be.

Toby Eastoe, a protection adviser for Fauna and Flora International based in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province, said in an email that Cambodian rosewood is usually found in forests 400 to 500 meters above sea level.

“However, most rosewood in Cambodia has been harvested in the past and can now only be found in remote areas,” he said. “Some [economic land concessions] have been granted close to these remote areas.”

Forest protection campaigners have long claimed that the logging rights granted to private companies for dam projects, as well as economic land concessions for agro-industry plantations, have allowed large-scale logging operations.

Marcus Hardtke, an independent forestry expert in Cambodia, said the amount of rosewood exported to China could not possibly come from the reservoir areas for dams alone.

“There’s not a lot of valuable timber [in the dam reservoir areas] because of where they are located, and it’s not a huge area,” Mr. Hardtke said.

He said the practice of laundering timber through sites with legal permits to clear the forest, was an “open secret” among residents in areas of Koh Kong and Pursat provinces.

“It comes from everywhere and they bring it to this area because they have permission [to log there],” he said. “You can drive many trucks through that loophole.”

Mr. Hardtke said that Cambodian rosewood, which was already considered endangered 10 years ago, had nearly been completely wiped out thanks to hard-wood furniture becoming “the fashion” in China over the past five or six years.

“If you talk to the [timber] traders, they think it’s pretty much over in the next two years,” he said.

The China Customs data does not include the names of the companies who have exported under the rosewood category from Cambodia to China. However, a search for “rosewood” on the Chinese trading website Alibaba reveals agents in Cambodia offering to sell the wood to China for prices as high as $35,000 per cubic meter.

One rosewood trader listed on the site, from Phnom Penh-based Cam Greenland Co. Ltd., reads, “If you’re looking for high quality hardwood or rosewood from Cambodia, we can supply.”

Cam Greenland’s managing director, Frederick Mamuth, claimed yesterday that the advertised wood was sourced from Thailand and not Cambodia.

“Actually, I have a friend in Thailand and I’m helping him to sell,” he said. “It’s nothing from Cambodia.”

Another seller on the Alibaba site is Kompong Cham-based Wee Kiong Ang, who is listed as a seller of Cambodian rosewood. The listing, which says buyers have to purchase a minimum of 50 cubic meters, is accompanied by a photograph of large chunks of rosewood.

“It’s not me. Actually, this one is a friend who works with a timber tycoon,” Mr. Wee said by telephone, declining to provide the name of his friend or the tycoon. “I’m just an agent, I don’t get involved with the seller,” he said, adding that he did not know what price his rosewood sells for since, he claimed, no one had yet bought any through him.

© 2012 – 2013, All rights reserved.