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Last Updated: Friday, 6 July 2007, 20:50 GMT 21:50 UK
China trade threatens tropical trees
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

A merbau tree in the wild
Merbau trees used to be common across parts of Asia and Africa
China is at the heart of a trade that is pushing some tropical trees towards extinction, environmental groups say.

One such is the tropical merbau tree, says Greenpeace.

Merbau trees that are mostly felled illegally are being shipped to China, where import rules are lax, the group claims.

This timber is then turned into finished products before being exported to Europe, North America and Australia.

Environmental campaigners want Chinese manufacturers and Western retailers to help end the illegal logging.


Merbau trees, which have reddish-brown wood, were once common in countries from East Africa to Tahiti.

But they now exist in large numbers only on the island of New Guinea, half of which is governed by Indonesia, half by Papua New Guinea.

Species like merbau are being pushed to the brink, and eventually we're going to run out
Liu Bing,
Greenpeace China

Greenpeace says China has become the world's largest importer of merbau timber from these two countries, mostly from illegal sources.

Using undercover investigators, the group found Chinese firms are using several methods to smuggle merbau timber.

One route involves logs being imported directly from Indonesia, despite a ban on such exports by Jakarta.

Another method of getting round the ban is to transport Indonesian logs through Malaysia in order to claim they are from the transit country.

Figures from Chinese Customs show the Indonesian ban, which was enforced in 2005, has reduced the amount of merbau shipped to China.

Merbau logs at Guangzhou Province's Yuzhu wharf.
The price of merbau logs has been rising in China

One indication of this comes from the price in China of merbau, which rose from $280 (140) per cubic metre in 2004 to $660 last year.

But Greenpeace says the trade still threatens remaining merbau forests.

"Species like merbau are being pushed to the brink, and eventually we're going to run out," said Liu Bing of Greenpeace China.

China denies Greenpeace's allegations, but it stops short of saying no illegally logged timber finds its way into the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang recently said government departments carried out joint attacks on "illegal behaviour".

Demand in the West

But the campaign to save the merbau tree is not just targeted at China.

Once it arrives here, the timber is turned into hardwood flooring, furniture and instruments such as drum frames. It is then exported across the world.

Greenpeace is targeting Western retailers who sell merbau products as well as Chinese manufacturers.

And there is evidence the campaign is working.

Retailer Floors-2-Go, which has 140 stores across the UK, stopped selling merbau flooring last year because of concerns over the source of the wood.

But Allied Carpets is still selling merbau flooring without being able to guarantee the wood is from legitimate sources.

Company Chief Executive Clive Hutchings, who oversees 220 stores in the UK, told the BBC that the firm aims to change this policy.

But that will not be easy.

Steve Gilman, hardware store B&Q's Asia chief executive, said recently: "[Merbau] is one of the most endangered of all hardwood species. There's very little from certified sources."

And even if retailers change their habits, the battle to save the merbau is not certain to succeed, not least because of how the tree grows.

It is a slow-growing species that takes up to 80 years to mature.

There are as few as one tree per hectare of forest, and an average of 45 other trees, many of which are just dumped, have to be chopped down to get the merbau.

"If the current rates of logging of merbau continue, the species will be virtually wiped out in the next 35 years," warns Greenpeace.


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