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.
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Corruption Stains Timber Trade
In 1998, floods along China's Yangtze River killed 3,600 people. The government, blaming deforestation, imposed logging bans -- particularly in Yunnan province, bordering Burma. What logging goes on must adhere to plans for regeneration.
China also unleashed an ambitious replanting effort, expanding its forest cover by an area the size of Nebraska from 2000 to 2005. A 2005 assessment of the world's forests by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization pointed to China's replanting as the primary reason Asia's total forest cover grew during that period, even as deforestation continued worldwide "at an alarmingly high rate."
But in those same years, unprecedented expansion has unfolded at China's factories, requiring enormous quantities of wood. In 2005, China exported $8.8 billion worth of wood furniture, an eightfold increase from 1998, according to Chinese customs data. About 40 percent landed in the United States. China's exports of all timber products, including plywood and floorboards, exceeded $17 billion in 2005, nearly five times the 1997 level.
All that wood had to come from somewhere. In the years since China enacted its logging bans, it became the world's largest importer of tropical logs, according to the FAO. Its log imports swelled nearly ninefold in a decade, reaching $5.6 billion in 2006, according to China's State Forestry Administration.
China's imports of wood and exports of finished wood products are both expected to double again over the next decade, according to Forest Trends.
Whatever environmental benefits have resulted from China's replanting have been undone by the damage to the tropical regions now supplying so many of its logs, said Mette Wilkie, the U.N. officer in Rome who coordinated the FAO report. China is primarily adding tree plantations with little biological diversity. Much of the logging in Burma, the Russian Far East, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea is assailing natural forests that hold creatures and plants found nowhere else.
"You're losing tropical rainforest, and you're gaining areas of plantation, and that of course is a concern," Wilkie said. "A lot of the biodiversity is found in the moist forests."
The FAO report found grave environmental risks -- particularly in Indonesia, home to 10 to 15 percent of all known animal, plant and bird species. Several species are imperiled, among them the Sumatran tiger, according to the World Conservation Union in Switzerland. In Burma, tigers, red pandas and leopards are threatened as logging roads open forests to a range of exploitation, a dynamic at play across Southeast Asia.
"The arrival of logging operations has an immediate and devastating effect," said Jake Brunner, a regional environmental scientist for Conservation International. "We see a fragmentation of the forest and a collapse" in wildlife.
More than 1 billion people in poor countries depend on forests for their livelihoods, according to the World Bank. As forests are degraded, and as logging proceeds on steep slopes, allowing soil to wash away, communities are suffering from flooding, forest fires and a dearth of game.
"Whole ecosystems are being wiped out," said Horst Weyerhaeuser, a forester with the World Agroforestry Centre research group who advises the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, the spoils of the timber trade are monopolized by those who control the trees, typically local authorities acting with military groups.