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
The cross-border log trade swelled by 60 percent between 2001 and 2004, reaching $350 million in 2005, according to a London environmental group, Global Witness. With competing Burmese generals involved and some using force to evict villagers in the way, control over land is in flux, contributing to forest destruction: Chinese logging crews work fast, cognizant that new armed forces could show up any minute and shut them down.
"You bribe one army and you get the right to cut everything," said Li Tao, a Chinese logger preparing last May to sneak across the border from the Chinese town of Ruili. "Then another army comes and threatens to arrest you, and you have to bribe them, too."
Ethnic Kachin agents working for a Chinese logging boss consented to interviews in Myitkyina, a town in northeastern Burma, on the condition of anonymity, citing fears they would be imprisoned or killed. They said they wished to publicize the details of the trade to bring international pressure on Burma's government to aid local people.
"We know what we are doing is rotten," one agent said. "There is nothing else for us to do. This is how we are surviving."
They displayed a logbook showing records of the bribes they said they paid to facilitate teak logging in the Sinpo area beginning in October 2004 through March 2006: $200 per year to the local police, $250 to the forestry department, $225 to the Burmese military special intelligence and $950 to the local brigade of the Burmese army, plus $8,000 worth of gold to battalion-level leaders. The Chinese boss independently funneled $4,000 each to five officers in the northern regional command, the Kachin men said.
In January 2005, the agents said, a crew of more than 120 Chinese workers slipped into Burma and set up camp on a mountaintop near the town of Bhamo, adding the whine of chainsaws to the screeching of jungle insects. "They cut the whole mountain," one agent said. "They cut it all."
Caravans of 10 and 20 trucks, each carrying about 20 logs, ferried the wood into China. The Kachin agents said they rode ahead on motorbikes, giving soldiers $40 per truck at eight government checkpoints. Where the government's control yields to the territory of a separatist group, the Kachin Independence Organization, they paid $125 per truck to Burmese soldiers, $83 to the forestry department and $25 to the drug police. At Laiza, the final stop before the border, the Kachin group collected a tax from the Chinese truckers, then issued documents declaring the shipments legitimate.
In the first six months of 2005, this operation hauled 150 truckloads of teak into China, with each truck carrying about 20 tons, the men said. On the other side of the border, each ton fetched nearly $1,000, making the total haul worth about $3 million.
Last May, in one hour, a reporter counted six big trucks loaded with logs as they made their way down a narrow, winding road from the border toward the Chinese town of Yingjiang.
'This Keeps My Child in School'
At the opposite edge of China, along the meandering border with Russia, the logging trade has transformed backwater towns into bustling hives. Russia has become China's primary wood supplier, with shipments multiplying 20-fold in less than a decade.
In Vostok, a Russian town of 4,000 with crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks, villagers receive about $100 a month to haul logs from the forest. Chinese workers run sawmills across the region.
South of Vostok, just outside the Russian town of Roshino, eight Chinese workers sliced oak and ash trees into planks one day last year, at a small plant where they also live, sleeping on cots in converted offices. Piles of oak and ash awaited the saw blades. At the railyard in the city of Dalnerechensk, freight cars bore loads of Korean pine and linden trees -- both protected species -- with the cargo bound for furniture factories in China.
Shi Diangang is typical of the entrepreneurs who control the trade. He once sold clothing to Russian tourists on the border. Now he brings laborers from China into Russia, paying them $375 per month to work 12- to 15-hour days, prying wood from the forest. He sells timber to Chinese traders who supply Chinese factories that he says make furniture for Ikea. He is shopping for a villa in Macau, the gambling mecca. He tells time with a gold watch.
"It's been hell to heaven," he said.
Shi operates inside Russia largely free of regulation, with his business partner's government pedigree rendering everything legal, he said.
"The Russian company settles all the documents," he said. "Russia has very loose controls."
Already, logging has laid bare much of the Russian forest bordering China. Crews are moving farther into the interior, penetrating officially protected terrain. In the Primorsky region -- an area rich with wildlife, including 450 Amur tigers, the world's largest cat -- Yappy lumber company struggles to satisfy orders from its Chinese customers for unprocessed oak and ash logs.
"The forest is exhausted," complained Alexander Sobchenko, the company's general-director.
The Russian Forest Service issues licenses for cutting in protected areas under the guise of so-called sanitation logging, to remove sick or fallen trees. In Primorsky, one-third of exported logs have been cut under such licenses, according to Josh Newell, a researcher at the University of Washington.
"Sanitation logging is a cover to get into areas that should be protected," he said.
Last year, Russia's environmental prosecutor opened a criminal investigation of Forestry Service officials after 14 firms with such licenses harvested 1.3 million cubic feet of wood in a protected zone near Vostok. The logs were exported to China with documentation, prosecutors said. How much more passed through undetected no one really knows: About the size of Florida, Primorsky has 12 forest inspectors.
"Barbaric" is one word Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to assail the "critical problem" of illegal logging. By shipping logs out of the country, Russia is exporting tens of thousands of jobs that would go to Russians if the country had more sawmills and furniture factories. "Our neighbors continue to earn billions of dollars relying on Russian timber," Putin said.
Across the border, in the Chinese city of Suifenhe, 11 freight trains were loaded with logs one morning about a year ago, some being offloaded, others bound for factory towns throughout the country. Shacks of corrugated tin and discarded tree bark encircled the rail yard -- homes for migrant workers who have swelled the city's population to more than 100,000 from 20,000 a decade ago.
On seemingly every lane, sawmills filled the air with black smoke, the scent of fresh sawdust and the screech of metal blades biting wood. Some were jury-rigged operations manned by workers lacking safety goggles and gloves. At Jindi Wood company near the rail yard, four men strained to haul huge logs to the saws with slats hung over their shoulders. They earn $250 a week for seven days of work.
"This keeps my child in school," said Xiao Jifeng, 35, whose wife and son remained in his village, a six-hour bus ride away.
Construction crews were filling the horizon with brick villas for the bosses, as a modern city took shape on once-empty plains.
"Four years ago, there was nothing here," said Su Guanglin, chairman of Guofeng Wood Co., a Hong Kong firm that employs 500 workers at a floorboard plant in Suifenhe. Guofeng ships nearly all its products overseas, about one-third to the United States, mainly through Armstrong, a prominent Pennsylvania brand of floor products.
A China-Russia trading office was going up behind the factory. Empty grassland had been transformed into a public square fringed with neon-lighted restaurants and nightclubs offering Cognac and hired female companionship. Oxcarts shared dusty roads with black Audi sedans.
Moving to Certification
The Forest Stewardship Council, a body created by environmental and industry groups in 1990, sets standards for the sustainable use of forests. The movement has gained high-profile members, including Ikea and Home Depot.
Home Depot conducts top-to-bottom investigations of the products on its shelves, refusing to buy from vendors who cannot verify the wood's origin, said Ron Jarvis, the company's merchandising vice president.
Home Depot sold some $400 million in products certified by the FSC in 2005, compared with $15 million in 1999. Still, those recent sales represented less than 5 percent of the company's total wood-product sales.
"If we could get 100 percent of our wood certified, we would do it tomorrow," Jarvis said. "But we have to do it on a commercial basis."
In China, 20 companies per month are gaining certification, said Alistair Monument, the FSC's country director in Beijing. In the floorboard and furniture factories of Guangdong province in southern China, management vernacular now includes forest conservation.
"All the big Chinese companies exporting to the United States are really paying attention to this issue now," said She Xuebin, president of one of China's largest flooring companies, Yingbin (Guangdong) Wood Industry Co.
But many major Western brands have declined to join. Four-fifths of Yingbin's exports go to the United States, some to Armstrong. Much of Yingbin's wood comes from a sawmill in Indonesia, where as much as 80 percent of the logging is illegal, according to the World Bank. Yingbin's president acknowledged "there's a gap between the law and enforcement," though he said his company plays by the rules.
Armstrong does not require that Yingbin or its four other China suppliers meet the standards of a certification body such as the FSC. Armstrong buys Southeast Asian merbau for flooring that it sells as "exotic," listing only the country of final manufacture -- typically the United States -- but not the wood's source.
"I just don't think there's a need for it," said Frank J. Ready, chief executive of Armstrong Floor Products North America.
Ready and his counterpart at Yingbin said they do not trade in wood from one country that is synonymous with human-rights abuse -- Burma. Yet as a reporter toured Yingbin's flooring factory in the Chinese city of Zhongshan last spring, a pile of teak boards sat on the floor.
"It's from Burma," a worker said.
In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, merchants at Yuzhu lumberyard hawked piles of Burmese teak to buyers from surrounding furniture factories. In Shanghai, marketing representatives for one of China's largest flooring companies, Anxin, boasted that they had a large and steady supply of Burmese teak.
They were exporting it to the United States, they said.
Through which channels, they would not say.
Goodman reported from China, Burma, Thailand and Singapore. Finn reported from Russia. Correspondent Ellen Nakashima in Indonesia, special correspondent Eva Woo in China, and staff writer Justin Gillis in Washington contributed to this report.