No rosewood of such virtue
Mr Deng’s ramshackle lumber yard on the edge of town offers a wide array of wood for sale. One species, however, is conspicuously absent. Asked whether he has any Siamese rosewood, he sends a lad off to retrieve one single foot-long chunk. Five years ago, says Mr Deng, rosewood was plentiful in the forests outside Lak Xao (a Lao town so small that its biggest restaurant is called, almost accurately, the Only One Restaurant). But then Chinese and Vietnamese businessmen started buying up trees by the lorryload. Today? “Finished,” he says.
On May 13th, hoping to save his country’s dwindling forests, Thongloun Sisoulith, the new prime minister of Laos, banned all timber exports. A government representative says environmental protection is among its top priorities. But a report to be published on June 24th by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an NGO, suggests the clampdown will not be implemented by local officials—and even if it is, may come too late to save Siamese rosewood from being eradicated in Laos and Cambodia.
Much like the trade in rhino horn and tiger skins, trade in rosewood is driven by demand from China’s burgeoning middle classes for goods once reserved for the rich: in this case, hongmu, or “redwood”, furniture made in the ornate Qing-dynasty style. Siamese rosewood is among the most highly prized of the 33 types of tree used to make hongmu.
Five years ago Thailand had roughly 90,000 Siamese rosewood trees—more than anywhere else in the world. But the EIA says “significant volumes, if not most” of those trees were illegally chopped down before trade in Siamese rosewood became regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty.
That grim history seems to be repeating itself in Laos and Cambodia. Between June 2013 and December 2014 Vietnam and China (including Hong Kong) imported more than 76,000 cubic metres of Siamese rosewood—more than the total amount growing in Thailand in 2011. Jago Wadley of the EIA says that Vietnam is a conduit through which the wood enters China. Of the total amount imported, 83% came from Laos and 16% from Cambodia.
Documentation accompanying the imported wood showed that 85% was harvested in the wild. Corrupt local officials have failed to enforce the restrictions imposed by the central Lao and Cambodian governments. Middlemen pay villagers to cut down the trees; they then sell the timber to Chinese or Vietnamese businessmen. Rosewood exports require a permit from the local CITES management office, which should only issue one if the export is not deemed detrimental to the survival of the species. Cambodia maintains that almost half of its exports during the period covered by the EIA report took place before the ban took effect. A Cambodian government spokesman says that the “competent authorities have never issued any permit which is contrary to the law.”
In Laos, the situation is clearer: the government has no credible data on how much Siamese rosewood remains, so the EIA cannot determine that exports are not detrimental. It says its investigators met a trader in Shenzhen who had permits issued by Laos’s CITES office, which he said could be bought for “any rosewood logs, regardless of their provenance”.
In Bolikhamxay province, where Lak Xao sits, Siamese rosewoods have been nearly eradicated. At the corner of Mr Deng’s property stands a rosewood tree, still young and slender. He knows of no others in the region. He says he will never cut it down.