RSS Feeds

Rare hardwood sparks gunfights, corruption in Asia

Saturday - 11/24/2012, 8:15am  ET

Associated Press

KOH KONG, Cambodia (AP) - A Thai force dubbed the "Rambo Army" couldn't stop the gangs, armed with battlefield weaponry, as they scoured the forests. Neither could a brave activist, gunned down when he came to investigate. Nor, apparently, can governments across Southeast Asia.

The root of the conflicts and bloodshed? Rosewood.

The richly hued, brownish hardwood is being illegally ripped from Southeast Asian forests, then smuggled by sea and air to be turned into Chinese furniture that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of it also ends up in the finest American guitars, or as billiard cues.

The felling, almost all of it illegal, has increased dramatically in recent years and driven the region's rosewood to the brink of extinction.

"This is not just an environmental issue. It drives corruption and criminal networks. There is a lot of violence and blood spilled before the rosewood ends up in someone's living room," says Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental group based in London. "It's one of the most expensive woods in the world. That's why there is a war for it."

In Koh Kong, a jungle region of southwest Cambodia where most villagers earn less than $2 a day, finding a rosewood tree is better than winning the lottery. A cubic meter (1.3 cubic yards) of top-grade rosewood last year could be sold for up to $2,700 to middlemen who hover around forests and construction sites of dams and roads in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Various species grow in Southeast Asia and countries including India, Brazil and Madagascar. Nearly all source nations have banned felling and export of unprocessed rosewood, allowing harvesting only in special cases such as clearing forests for dam construction.

The volume of rosewood consumed by China alone suggests that most was obtained illegally. China imported $600 million worth in 2011, according to official Chinese documents made available by James Hewitt, an expert on the illegal timber trade at the London think tank Chatham House. About half came from Southeast Asian countries.

The documents also show that China's appetite is soaring _ from just 66,000 cubic meters in 2005 to 500,000 cubic meters last year. Rosewood has long been prized in China, and the dramatic growth of its wealthy class is cited as the main reason for the surge in exploitation.

The hunt for rosewood ignites violence between officials and smugglers, and sometimes among rival gangs.

The EIA estimates that nearly 50 Cambodian loggers and smugglers have been killed in Thailand and others arrested over the past two years in clashes, with Thais also suffering casualties.

In Koh Kong, one of the country's leading environmental activists, Chut Wutty, was shot dead in April while investigating illegal rosewood logging by Timbergreen, a company with no known address that is believed to be a hook-up of gangs and officials.

In Thailand `s northeast, authorities last year formed what they called a "Rambo Army" of 11-man units of armed forestry rangers to target the traffickers who cross the porous frontier from Cambodia, often in well-armed bands. The Rambo Army was disbanded after a three-month operation due to lack of funds.

Despite the loss of law-enforcement muscle and widespread corruption, thousands of illegally felled trees have been seized in recent years and many of those accused of involvement in the trade have been arrested, including the son of a Cambodian general and 12 Thai police officers. Last month, Thai authorities nabbed eight Cambodian rosewood hunters in the Thai border province of Sisaket.

It hasn't been enough to protect rosewood in Thailand. By some official estimates, the number of rosewood trees there dropped from 300,000 in 2005 to as low as 80,000 last year.

"The spectrum of illegal rosewood logging ranges from loggers, military and police officers to Thai forestry officials. This network runs the industry," says Chavalit Lohkunsombat, who commanded the Rambo Army and remains head of the forest protection unit of Nakhon Sawan province.

Once the smuggled rosewood snakes its way to furniture makers in China, often via Vietnam, the price escalates. A sofa and chair set of high quality "hongmu" or rosewood can sell for $320,000, according to the China Daily. A four-poster bed was seen by the EIA with a $1 million price tag.

Some rosewood makes its way to the U.S. and Europe. A number of Chinese websites offer rosewood products to Western customers.

U.S. authorities in 2009 and 2011 raided the Tennessee plants of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, seizing $500,000 worth of imported ebony and rosewood that was to be used in fingerboards. Gibson paid $350,000 in penalties in August to settle federal charges of illegally importing ebony, but rosewood was not part of the charges.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>