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Demand for rare wood puts Cambodians in line of fire

China's appetite for Mekong rosewood fuels an illegal, violent industry

<p>Woodworkers assemble sculptures from illegally-logged luxury rosewood in Oddar Meanchey province (Photo by Abby Seiff)</p>

Woodworkers assemble sculptures from illegally-logged luxury rosewood in Oddar Meanchey province (Photo by Abby Seiff)

  • Abby Seiff and Chhorn Chansy, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • May 19, 2014
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In February, Po Chanthorn left his wife and baby daughter to join a group of men hunting for illegal rosewood along the Thai-Cambodian border. The work came with the high risk of being shot at by Thai soldiers, but it was also the 26-year-old’s best chance at making enough money to live on.

“Our living standard is poor,” Chanthorn’s wife, Nov Samon, said last week. “If we had a better life, he would never have had to go to Thailand to log rosewood.”

Chanthorn left his border province home on the morning of February 18. Within two weeks, his family would be holding a funeral for the young man — missing and presumed shot to death.

When his fellow loggers returned, they told Samon that Thai soldiers had opened fire on the group. Chanthorn may have been arrested and secreted away, but when Thai authorities told Somon they had no information on her husband, she was forced to conclude that he had been killed — his body left to rot in the forest.

“We held a funeral ceremony for him after he went missing for 10 days because we couldn’t find him. I am frustrated but I don’t know what else I can do,” she said, speaking by phone from her mother’s house, where she is now staying.  

Chanthorn is one among scores of Cambodians who have been killed or disappeared in recent years while felling luxury timber inside border forests. Government figures have put the number of deaths as high as 69 in 2013 and 45 the prior year. And while local officials seek to staunch the bloodshed by educating loggers on the risks, the lure of the pay is simply too great.

Chanthorn, who joined logging expeditions several times a year, could make anywhere between US$25 and $200 per excursion — a small but princely sum for a struggling rural family.

“The middlemen wait at the border to buy rosewood,” said Somon. “There are a lot of middlemen who wait to buy. When they offer a low price, we sell to someone else. No one forced us to log rosewood, but our low living standard did. Our 18-month-old son was often sick, and we needed money for his treatment.”

The money that loggers like Chanthorn can earn represents a miniscule portion of what their efforts will bring at the end of the money trail, thousands of kilometers away in China.

In a report released last week by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, researchers detailed a skyrocketing trade driven by ever-wealthier Chinese consumers and sellers eager to satisfy demand.

Millions of dollars worth of prized rosewood from the Mekong region is imported by China each year to meet a growing demand for a luxury furniture known there as Hongmu. Cambodia alone tripled last year the amount of rosewood it sent to China.

“Following government support for the industry and a growing trend for investing in Hongmu as an exclusive asset class, current demand far exceeds domestic supply and China is heavily dependent on imports,” the report notes. “From 2000-13, China imported a total of 3.5 million cubic meters (m3) of Hongmu timber
and is the only country to have a specific customs code for Hongmu species, indicating the country’s global dominance of trade in these timbers.”

As demand rises, speculators have been stockpiling wood, forcing prices even higher. Furniture made of the rarest species of rosewood can fetch incredible prices; the report notes that one investigator found a Hongmu bed in Shanghai retailing for $1 million.

Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner at EIA, said the growth was likely tied to shifts across the region. 

"We cannot be sure, but it is likely to be a combination of increased demand for hongmu furniture and investments in hongmu raw materials in China, possibly an increase in direct shipments to China form Cambodia (rather than transhipment via Vietnam), and possibly an increase in the availability of hongmu species harvested from Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) in Cambodia," he said via email.

To meet the demand, rosewood stocks throughout the Mekong are being plundered. In Cambodia, only an estimated 100,000 trees (63,000 cubic meters) remained as of 2011, according to the report. Wood harvested from ELCs has permitted a legal — if highly suspect — workaround to laws against felling rosewood. But illegal border logging has hardly ebbed in popularityEach year, loggers are forced deeper within Thai territory to combat the shortfall. While those directing the operations include wealthy traders and corrupt officials, it is “impoverished rural” villagers who do the heavy lifting and risky work.

“Rosewood has become so rare and valuable,” the report notes, “the practice of logging it is now more akin to wildlife poaching. The majority of the timber that finds its way to the markets of China is sought by teams of skilled men from rural villages who will spend weeks at a time in remote forests tracking down the last stands.”

Because logging the protected species is illegal, those running the operations typically have some tie to individuals in positions of authority; making a crackdown on the trade difficult.

The levels of corruption can be staggering. On Friday, local media reported that a district governor had a gun pulled on him by a military police officer after he and other police officials had seized the officer’s haul of illegal rosewood.

“There is no effectiveness in protection and prevention from the government,” said Latt Ky, Head of the Land and Natural Resources Section of local rights group Adhoc.

Every year, said Ky, the problem “looks worse and worse”.

 “We have been promised a lot in regards to [crackdowns] against illegal logging by the tycoons and also warning messages to the agencies who are corrupt and behind the illegal loggers, but most of the promise is still just a promise,” he said. “I don’t see any progress.”

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