Rare Wood Rules Tightened; to What Avail?

Delegates at a major international conference to regulate the trade of endangered species have agreed to tighten the rules around Siamese rosewood, a favorite of Cambodia’s illegal loggers, and other local trees increasingly targeted in its stead.

A committee of member states to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreed during a meeting in South Africa on Friday that exceptions to rules restricting the cross-border trade of Siamese rosewood, or Dalbergia cochinchinensis, should be scrapped. It also agreed to place basic trade restrictions on the world’s 300-plus other Dalbergia species in hopes of avoiding the same decimation that has already hit Siamese rosewood in Cambodia and across the region.

A man walks past shipping containers holding Siamese rosewood belonging to timber magnate Try Pheap at the international port in Sihanoukville in early 2014. (Global Witness)
A man walks past shipping containers holding Siamese rosewood belonging to timber magnate Try Pheap at the international port in Sihanoukville in early 2014. (Global Witness)

To take effect, the committee’s decisions will have to be approved by a majority of the 183 countries signed up to CITES—Cambodia among them—before they close out their latest triennial meeting later this week.

Forest Trends, a U.S.-based environmental watchdog group, called the changes “a huge victory for the world’s most threatened forests.” But they joined others in warning that beefed-up rules were only as good as the commitment of convention members to enforce them.

“It’s up to consumer countries to adopt broader policy solutions that tackle the problem at its root—demand,” Forest Trend’s director of forest policy, trade and finance, Kerstin Canby, said in a statement. “As the world’s largest consumer of rosewood, China holds the key to preventing the loss of the last remaining old-growth forests in Africa and Southeast Asia.”

It’s the demand for fancy rosewood furniture in China that has driven much of Cambodia’s exports, often through Vietnam and all illegal since 2013. Despite a blanket ban on Siamese rosewood logging and export declared by Prime Minister Hun Sen that year, thousands of cubic meters worth millions of dollars have continued to make it into Vietnam. A ban on all timber exports to Vietnam in January has cut the traffic in half at best, and it appears to be wearing off ever more with each passing month, according to Vietnam’s own import figures.

In a bid to curb the trade, CITES members listed Siamese rosewood under the convention’s Appendix II the last time the countries got together—in Bangkok in 2013. Since then, any convention member exporting its Siamese rosewood has had to issue a special certificate each time guaranteeing, in theory, that the shipment poses no threat to its existence in the wild.

But the listing came with what environmental groups recognized from the start was a major loophole.

Added under the convention’s Annotation 5, the certificates apply only to exports of logs, sawn wood and veneer. Any additional processing, vaguely defined, gets an exemption.

One of the changes approved by committee in Johannesburg on Friday moves Siamese rosewood from Annotation 5 to Annotation 4, eliminating the exemption.

Besides closing the loophole, the public may also get a better idea of the actual global trade in Siamese rosewood, said Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based watchdog group.

“It will generate the obligation of all parties to publish far more species specific trade data…so the world will have a better picture of actual trade in the species,” he said in an email.

“This will help in understanding the degree to which trade is ‘detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild,’ the core function of CITES. Without knowing what trade exists in reality, no one can ever have an informed position on whether further protection is required,” he added.

Some fear the change is too little too late for Cambodia.

Though the country has no up-to-date accounting of how much Siamese rosewood is left in the wild, many believe it has been nearly wiped out. Local loggers regularly risk their lives sneaking into Thailand to cut down trees there; dozens have been shot dead by Thai soldiers in the past few years.

Loggers have also turned increasingly to other “replacement species” to keep the Chinese furniture market fed. Recognizing the shift, CITES members on Friday also agreed to require certificates for the export of all 300-plus Dalbergia species. They include Dalbergia oliveri, another lucrative favorite of Cambodia’s illegal loggers.

But as the last three years have proved with Siamese rosewood, certifying exports is far from foolproof.

Vietnam has reported to CITES repeated Siamese rosewood imports from Cambodia since 2013. Cambodia, however, says it has not issued a single certificate for the trees since export restrictions were imposed that year, claiming that all the certificates must have been faked.

“The reality is that Vietnam and China have fundamentally failed in their application of provisions of CITES, as they have not adequately verified the CITES permits supposedly issued by Cambodia [but in fact not] presented to them,” Mr. Wadley said.

“Vietnam accepted a load of fakes and then passed those on to China. Both had clear reason to believe that no permits could or should have been issued by Cambodia,” he added. “However, they ignored those facts when accepting permits for the wood.”

This points to what environmental protection groups consider another weakness of the CITES system—its heavy reliance on member states to abide by the rules.

Ty Sokhun, a secretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry who heads Cambodia’s enforcement of CITES, could not be reached for comment.

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