Workers walks past rolls of imported timber at a dock in Shanghai, China. Photograph: Qilai Shen/Corbis
China is at the centre of a vast global traffic in illegally logged timber that is destroying entire swaths of forest around the world.
Academic research and NGOs such as WWF and Global Witness have already revealed the existence of illegal trading networks in central Africa, Burma and Russia leading directly to Chinese ports or cities. Now for the first time fingers are pointing directly to Beijing and holding public enterprises and local government officials responsible for this highly lucrative illegal trade.
The British NGO, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), published a detailed report at the end of November called "China, appetite for destruction". It reveals just how China's appetite for wood has grown in the past decades as a result of consumption by the new middle classes, as well as an export-driven wood industry facing growing demand from major foreign furniture and construction companies.
China has become the leading importer, consumer and exporter of the world's timber. Its own forests provide less than 40% of its needs. According to the report, "in response to severe flooding in 1998, China adopted a Natural Forest Conservation Programme […] and embarked on a massive programme of reforestation […] The government spent $31bn on tree planting between 1999 and 2009."
But the gap between domestic supply and demand has continued to grow. In 2011 China imported 180m cubic metres of wood products, 28% more than in 2010 and 300% more than in 2000. According to the EIA, last year one-third of all the timber sold worldwide was bought by China, with little regard to its origin.
Unlike the US, the EU and Australia, which, under pressure from public opinion, have adopted legislation banning illegal timber imports, China has made no such move. The government has only signed bilateral agreements with the US, Europe, Indonesia and Burma, the benefits of which have yet to be demonstrated.
After analysing trade data for 36 supplier countries, the EIA has concluded that approximately 10% of the logs and sawed timber is illegal, representing "turnover" of $3.7bn. Public enterprises, often controlled by provincial governments, play a strategic role in this trade, says the EIA, citing illegal imports from Indonesia and Mozambique. The report describes corruption networks in countries with weak governments such as Burma, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Rosewood trafficking is especially lucrative. Although rosewood is classified as an endangered species by the International Trade Convention, trade in that wood has risen dramatically, triggered by demand from well-off Chinese households for reproductions of Qing and Ming dynasty furniture. It is now sourced in Madagascar, Burma,Thailand, Vietnam and Belize, and rosewood imports to China rose from 66,000 cubic metres in 2005 to 565,000 cubic metres in 2011.
This story appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde