Hong Kong and China must close the door on import of illegal timber
News of border interceptions of illegal timber bound for Asia from Africa is, sadly, becoming all too familiar. Rosewood has been in the spotlight for a number of years because of the staggering rate of decline of its different species, some of which are subject to trade restrictions under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The seizure in Kenya of illegally logged Madagascar rosewood was reportedly the largest of its kind.
Hong Kong is a popular transshipment point for both the legal and illegal timber trade, particularly high-value, tropical species like rosewood, with many of the raw logs redirected from here to processing factories in mainland China. The city's proximity to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which are major processing hubs for tropical hardwood species, might explain the proportion of illegally sourced timber entering Hong Kong, which some experts believe is used in 20-30 per cent of wood products found here.
Tropical hardwoods like ebony, mahogany and rosewood, which are often made into high-end furniture, flooring and musical instruments, are very profitable but increasingly scarce around the world. The combination of high prices and shrinking legal supply make illegal trade very enticing for smugglers.
Neither the Hong Kong nor Chinese governments actually outlaws illegally sourced timber. Hong Kong and Chinese border authorities can intercept timber listed by CITES as a trade-restricted species. However, for timber that may have been harvested illegally - whether logged without permits or outside of concession areas, obtained through bribery or where export taxes have been evaded - Hong Kong and mainland customs authorities are not empowered to stop it from entering their borders.
Progress has been made on this front in the United States, European Union and Australia, which have legislation that bans the trade in illegal timber, and places the onus on importers to make certain the necessary checks have been carried out all along the supply chain to ensure the wood is legally sourced.
Putting in place similar legislation to close the door on the import of illegal timber would be extremely meaningful in this part of the world, particularly on the mainland. China is increasingly moving up the value chain, not only as a processing centre but as a significant buyers' market. It is estimated that only 16 per cent of China's processed timber is exported; the rest is sold domestically. Hence, regulations that target consumers within China are crucial in stemming the illegal logging of forests elsewhere in the world. Ideally, such measures should be accompanied by efforts to drive down the demand for endangered species of tree.
An effort to inform the public about the consequences of sourcing illegal timber, and bold declarations to block illegal imports - such as the crackdown on extravagant spending by central government officials - could make the illegal trade less profitable for smugglers.
Wilson Lau is project manager at Civic Exchange