The Impact of Logging

These satellite images of a mountainside in Burma near the Chinese border are believed to show the impact of recent logging. The image at left, from 2001, shows largely intact forest cover. The 2005 image at right shows multiple clear-cuts of large forest patches. The reasons for the clear-cuts can't be ascertained without visiting them, which is difficult in authoritarian Burma, but they took place in a region where environmental groups have reported rampant illegal logging.

IMAGE SOURCES: IKONOS courtesy of GeoEye (2001) and Digital Globe via Google Earth (2005)

Correction to This Article
An April 1 Page One article about illicit logging in Asia reported that Armstrong Floor Products of Pennsylvania sells flooring made from tropical merbau wood with a label typically saying it is made in the United States and without disclosing that the wood came from Southeast Asia. Armstrong's merbau flooring is actually made in Indonesia and labeled as such, and the company says it has taken steps to ensure the wood is harvested legally. Additionally, the article should have included a statement from Armstrong that 95.1 percent of the wood it uses in its products is grown in the United States and Canada.

Corruption Stains Timber Trade

A railway in northeastern China receives timber from the Russian Far East, where the World Bank says half of all logging is illegal. Ikea products are made here and shipped to the U.S.
A railway in northeastern China receives timber from the Russian Far East, where the World Bank says half of all logging is illegal. Ikea products are made here and shipped to the U.S. (By Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter S. Goodman and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 1, 2007

MYITKYINA, Burma -- The Chinese logging boss set his sights on a thickly forested mountain just inside Burma, aiming to harvest one of the last natural stands of teak on Earth.

He handed a rice sack stuffed with $8,000 worth of Chinese currency to two agents with connections in the Burmese borderlands, the men said in interviews. They used that stash to bribe everyone standing between the teak and China. In came Chinese logging crews. Out went huge logs, over Chinese-built roads.

About 2,500 miles to the northeast, Chinese and Russian crews hacked into the virgin forests of the Russian Far East and Siberia, hauling away 250-year-old Korean pines in often-illegal deals, according to trading companies and environmentalists. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Africa and in the forests of the Amazon, loggers working beyond the bounds of the law have sent a ceaseless flow of timber to China.

Some of the largest swaths of natural forest left on the planet are being dismantled at an alarming pace to feed a global wood-processing industry centered in coastal China.

Mountains of logs, many of them harvested in excess of legal limits aimed at preserving forests, are streaming toward Chinese factories where workers churn out such products as furniture and floorboards. These wares are shipped from China to major retailers such as Ikea, Home Depot, Lowe's and many others. They land in homes and offices in the United States and Europe, bought by shoppers with little inkling of the wood's origins or the environmental costs of chopping it down.

"Western consumers are leaving a violent ecological footprint in Burma and other countries," said an American environmental activist who frequently travels to Burma and goes by the pen name Zao Noam to preserve access to the authoritarian country. "Predominantly, the Burmese timber winds up as patio furniture for Americans. Without their demand, there wouldn't be a timber trade."

At the current pace of cutting, natural forests in Indonesia and Burma -- which send more than half their exported logs to China -- will be exhausted within a decade, according to research by Forest Trends, a consortium of industry and conservation groups. Forests in Papua New Guinea will be consumed in as little as 13 years, and those in the Russian Far East within two decades.

These forests are a bulwark against global warming, capturing carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to heating the planet. They hold some of the richest flora and fauna anywhere, and they have supplied generations of people with livelihoods that are now threatened.

In the world's poorest countries, illegal logging on public lands annually costs governments $10 billion in lost assets and revenues, a figure more than six times the aid these nations receive to help protect forests, a World Bank study found last year.

Environmental activists have prodded some of the largest purveyors of wood products to adopt conservation policies. Industry leaders and conservationists have crafted standards meant to give forests time to regenerate. They certify operations that comply and encourage consumers to buy certified goods.

But such efforts are in their infancy and are vulnerable to abuse. Corruption bedevils the timber trade in poor countries.

"What we've done very well so far with certification is to reward the best players in the marketplace," said Ned Daly, vice president of U.S. operations for a leading certification body, the Forest Stewardship Council. "What we haven't done very well is to figure out how to exclude the worst players. We're having a hard time getting the criminals to label their products 'illegal.' "


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