Cambodia’s exports of protected rosewood and other high-value timber to China more than tripled last year, according to U.N. figures cited in a new report that blames lax law enforcement across the Mekong region and skyrocketing demand in China for pushing some species to the brink of extinction.
The trade can be deadly. At least 33 Cambodians were shot dead by Thai security forces while searching for the lucrative lumber across the border last year alone, according to rights group Adhoc. The illicit cross-border trade cost 45 Cambodians their lives the year before.
In a report released Monday, “Routes of Extinction: The corruption and violence destroying Siamese rosewood in the Mekong,” the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) blames the illicit trade mostly on China’s love for Hongmu, its word for a type of high-end furniture and the species of wood used to make it.
“While responsibility lies with countries in which the tree grows—Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia—it is the state-sponsored commodification and commercialization of China’s rich Hongmu cultural heritage that has provided all the money, and China is where all the timber has gone,” the report says.
EIA investigators say they found a Hongmu bed in Shanghai retailing for $1 million.
The London-based environmental rights group has sent teams across the region, sometimes undercover, to investigate the trade routes. It warns that other rosewood and redwood species could be next on the critically endangered list.
“Siamese rosewood is now all but gone, and as a result attention is now being focused on other precious replacement species,” the report says. “Unless governments respond strongly to the crimes outlined…the redwoods of Asia will follow Siamese rosewood along the route to extinction.”
Of the 3.5 million cubic meters of Hongmu timber China imported between 2000 and 2013, nearly half came from Cambodia and the rest of the Mekong region, according to the EIA’s analysis of U.N. trade data.
According to the data, Cambodia’s exports of rosewood and other Hongmu species more than tripled between 2012 and 2013 from 6,800 cubic meters to 20,700 cubic meters, the highest figure on record for the country since 2000.
Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner for EIA, offered a few possible explanations for the dramatic increase.
“Demand has rocketed, shipments that may have gone via Vietnam before may be shipping direct now, [economic land concession] clearance may have produced more of the relevant Hongmu species. None of these reasons can be confirmed or discounted at this stage,” he said by email.
Mr. Wadley said Cambodian export figures did not tell the full story of all the Hongmu wood heading from Cambodia to China, either. Of the tens of thousands of cubic meters being officially exported every year by Vietnam, much of it is very likely coming from, or at least through, Cambodia as well.
“Vietnam plays a very significant role in laundering illegal Hongmu timbers from both Laos and Cambodia,” he said.
“We cannot know exact proportions or source countries as this is not included in the data. However, as Vietnam has more or less completely logged out its Siamese rosewood, and most other natural forests containing Hongmu species, it is highly likely that nearly all Vietnam’s exports of Hongmu logs to China are from Laos and Cambodia and, in turn, from Thailand.”
And the trade remains rampant in the face of laws and conventions specifically prohibiting it.
Cambodia’s 2002 Forestry Law strictly prohibits the logging of rare tree species, including rosewood. In 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive outlawing not just the logging of rosewood, but its transport and sale as well. He also urged countries still importing the wood to act to stem demand.
That same year, Cambodia joined 176 other countries party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to give Siamese rosewood Appendix II protection. That means all international trade of the species must now be accompanied by a specific export license.
But traders appear to be finding their way around the new protection measure.
In late 2013, EIA investigators tracked down and met with a rosewood trader in Shenzhen, China. A few months later, EIA says, the businessman sent the investigators an apparently dubious CITES re-export permit supposedly issued by Vietnam for a shipment of Siamese rosewood from Cambodia.
But Cambodia told the EIA that it had not issued a single CITES export permit to date, and soon wrote to the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh to say it had banned the trade of Siamese rosewood.
The CITES website lists Cambodia’s “management authority” for the convention as Ty Sokhun, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Mr. Sokhun declined to speak. His assistant referred questions on rosewood exports to Forestry Administration chief Chheng Kim Sun, who also declined to speak.
EIA, in its report, adds that Cambodia and other countries are undermining their own laws and conventions by auctioning off the illegally logged wood their authorities regularly seize.
“The laundering of illegal timber into the formal economy through government seizures and auctions is systematized and corrupted, and plays a key role in circumventing all existing trade protection for the species in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia,” it says.
“Cambodia similarly prohibits harvest and trade in Siamese rosewood but awards exclusive contracts to connected timber barons for illegal seized precious wood, including Siamese rosewood cut from controversial economic land concessions that are decimating the country’s forests.”
EIA cites a $3.4 million deal Cambodian timber tycoon Try Pheap inked with the government for 5,000 cubic meters of illegally logged wood seized by authorities last year. In the country’s northeast, it is an open secret among loggers and rights groups that Mr. Pheap’s loaded trucks make constant trips into nearby Vietnam.
Whatever Cambodia says it is doing to combat the trade of rosewood and other rare species, the EIA’s Mr. Wadley said, it did not appear to be working.
“As long as it is recorded accurately,” he said, “trade data does not lie.”