Cambodia exported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of threatened Siamese rosewood in the 18 months after ratifying a 2013 international protocol designed to protect the species from destructive trade, according to a report released on Friday.
Produced by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the report states that Cambodia and Laos “fundamentally undermined efforts to curb trade” in Siamese rosewood after the species was added to Appendix II of the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which both countries are signatories.
“Neither Laos nor Cambodia have credible inventories of remaining populations to justify any exports at all, or likely any evidence of legality, as required under the Convention,” said a statement accompanying the report.
When Siamese rosewood was first listed as threatened in March 2013, EIA called the move a “significant step forward” in protecting a species threatened by soaring Chinese demand for rosewood furniture.
Exports of species listed under Appendix II must be accompanied by a permit before being accepted by another country, and those permits can only be issued if the exporting country can prove the exports do not threaten the species’ survival, according to the agency’s website.
The EIA said on Friday that Cambodia could not provide justification for the more than 12,000 cubic meters of rosewood that, according to a CITES database, it exported to China and Vietnam between June 2013 and December 2014.
Neither country knows how much Siamese rosewood they have left in their forests, so they have no legal basis on which to issue CITES export permits, said EIA senior forest campaigner Jago Wadley. “CITES works when parties to it implement its rules. Laos and Cambodia are not doing that, so it is not working,” he said.
Harvesting rosewood is prohibited under the 2002 Forestry Law, but that has not stopped loggers from decimating stocks that “were extremely low and rapidly in decline” even before the Appendix II listing, the new report says.
Rosewood fetches a market price of between $30,000 and $50,000 per cubic meter, according to Mr. Wadley, giving the Cambodian exports documented in the report a conservative value of over $366 million.
“Evidence of crime and corruption in production and trade in the key exporting countries Laos and Cambodia is widespread and abundant,” the report contends, urging a suspension of trade if the countries are found to have violated CITES rules.
Sao Sopheap, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry, which manages protected areas, said the government would have to conduct its own study to determine whether the rosewood highlighted in the new report was illegally cut from areas under the ministry’s purview.
“We have to do a proper investigation [to find out] which period the rosewood was collected, as well as which trees it is coming from,” he said, declining to say whether the ministry planned to conduct such an investigation and referring all other questions to the Forestry Administration, whose officials could not be reached.
Bunra Seng, director of Conservation International in Cambodia, said the country’s forests remain an appealing target for loggers.
“Luxury timber is still reasonably easy to access and extract here, with lots of creative ways of hiding it within vehicles and lots of potential border crossings to use to smuggle it across,” Mr. Seng said in an email. “There is also the problem of incentives—alternative in-come options are not nearly as lucrative.”
Mr. Seng called stepped-up enforcement “the most obvious” way to thwart the illegal timber trade, but also cited the potential of more offbeat measures, including tracking timber using bar codes, genetic testing from “tree to table” and cultivating high-value species on carefully monitored plantations.
“As long as there continues to be such high demand for luxury timber…the pressure will only continue to increase on Cambodia’s forests.”