Value (US$) of logs and sawn timber imports into China from all countries, 2000-2011. EIA, 2012

China is now the biggest importer, exporter, and consumer of illegal timber in the world. Its footprint impacts vital forest ecosystems ranging from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar to remote areas of Africa.

With domestic forests incapable of meeting surging demand, China has a gaping and growing timber deficit that can only be filled by imports. In 2011, China imported a massive 180 million cubic metres (RWE), a three-fold increase since 2000.

Recently, supply restrictions from key timber producing countries and demand for legal timber by China’s main environmentally sensitive export markets have led to increased imports from countries with a low risk of illegal logging. Nonetheless, China’s unprecedented import boom has resulted in ever-increasing timber supplies from high-risk countries where illegal logging is rife. Accounting for logs and sawn timber alone, EIA estimates China imported at least 18.5 million cubic metres (RWE) of illicit timber in 2011, worth $3.7 billion. This is an extremely cautious estimate; the overall figure is likely to be far higher.

Aside from statistical analysis, EIA’s investigative case studies contained in this report detail the actual methods used by Chinese businesses – both private and state-owned – in securing illegal timber supplies from some of the world’s poorest, most corrupt and forest resource-rich countries.

These investigations reveal how Chinese traders thrive on crime, corruption, the purchase of political patronage and poor forest governance in the producer countries from which they source. A displacement effect is also clearly visible as the businesses move from country to country once wood supplies dwindle or enforcement improves in one place. This cut and run strategy, based on shipping raw wood back to China, suppresses the growth of value-adding processing industries in producer countries and strips forests of commercial timber supplies.

China’s Government has done virtually nothing to curb illegal imports, while putting in place policies to ensure supply from some of the worst illegal logging hotspots in the world.

Historically, large volumes of illegal timber imports into China have been re-exported as finished wood products to consumer markets in the US, EU and Japan. Now China’s rapidly growing domestic consumer market is the main absorber of illegal timber imported into the country, and without action will be the chief driver of illegal logging worldwide into the future.

While other leading economies have instituted clear and principled prohibitions on illegal timber trade in recent years, China has to date resisted this leadership role, opting instead to present such policies as “unsuitable” for its circumstances.

With China’s emergence as the world’s second biggest economy, the country is playing an increasingly high-profile role in global political and economic change. With such power comes responsibility, and it essential that the country acts decisively to cut illegal timber out of its path towards economic growth.

The fate of much of the world’s natural forests is in China’s hands. 

Appetite for destruction: China’s trade in illegal timber

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