BEIJING — China’s growing appetite for rosewood dining sets, hardwood floors, plywood and printer paper is helping propel a booming trade in illegally harvested timber and spurring the destruction of fragile ecosystems across the globe, a British environmental organization said in a report released on Thursday.
The organization, the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the Chinese government has largely turned a blind eye as wood importers and furniture makers, some of them state-owned enterprises, have profited from a $4 billion industry that harvests wood illegally from Myanmar, Mozambique, Indonesia and other countries with weak law enforcement and widespread corruption.
“Illegal logging and the trade in stolen timber are among the most destructive environmental crimes occurring today and directly threaten the world’s vital forests,” the report said.
Although some of the trees are used to make wood products that China exports, analysts say that at least two-thirds of the logs imported into China ultimately end up in the homes of affluent Chinese who are willing to pay steep prices for teak beds, merbau wood flooring and mahogany trim.
The steep increase in illicitly harvested timber mirrors a growing demand in China for ivory, shark fins and endangered wildlife that environmentalists say is depleting some of the world’s most valuable resources. The group called on the Chinese government to follow the European Union, the United States and Australia, which in recent years have moved to ban the import of illegally harvested wood.
The report, which drew on studies from Interpol, the World Bank and the United Nations, said the unlawful cutting of tropical rain forest is a contributing factor in the growing violence among loggers, forestry workers and environmental activists in Africa and Asia. In the past year, at least 30 people in Southeast Asia have died in such skirmishes, the group said, including two Cambodian journalists killed for their coverage of the illegal timber trade.
“There is a war going on, and these logging gangs are armed to the teeth,” said Faith Doherty, one of the agency’s investigators. “China can no longer stand on the sidelines while such crimes flourish.”
Asked about the report’s findings, Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China was working to halt the importation of illicit wood. “We resolutely oppose and crack down on the illegal felling of timber and relevant trading behavior,” he said Thursday during a regular news briefing.
Last year China was the destination for roughly 30 percent of all the logs traded on the world market, making it the top importer of raw timber. The value of that wood was $9.3 billion, a nearly 30 percent increase over 2010, the report said.
The group estimated that at least 10 percent of China’s timber imports were illegally harvested, an amount that would fill 200,000 shipping containers. It said state-owned enterprises were responsible for purchasing nearly half the tropical wood imported into the country.
The demand has been especially ruinous for the rosewood forests of Myanmar. Investigators said loggers have stripped bare a 62-mile stretch of mountains and jungle in Kachin State, which borders China.
Over all, Myanmar lost 18 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005, with much of the wood trucked into China, despite a 2006 agreement between the two countries that bans such trade. “Myanmar is China’s supermarket, and Kachin State is their 7-Eleven,” one local community elder told investigators.
The group said Chinese government officials in Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar, were largely unconcerned with illegal imports as long as traders paid duties on the logs.
Beijing’s apparent tolerance for illicit timber imports stands in marked contrast to its domestic restrictions, which environmental groups say have effectively halted the clear-cutting of Chinese forests in recent years. The government has been credited with an ambitious $31 billion tree planting program that, over four years ending in 2008, increased forest cover to more than 20 percent of the country.
So far, however, the State Forestry Administration has declined to move against illegal timber imports.
Liu Bing, the forest campaign manager in China for Greenpeace, said such inaction would ultimately penalize Chinese manufacturers, especially next year, when the European Union will put a ban into effect on imported products that use illegal timber.
“If China doesn’t establish a law or a certifying system regulating timber imports, it’s going to really hurt tens of thousands of small businesses,” he said. “Fighting illegal timber is China’s responsibility as a global citizen.”