From a forest in Papua New Guinea to a floor in Sydney: how China is getting rich off Pacific timber

An illegally logged tree, felled in the diminishing forests of Papua New Guinea, may well end up becoming floorboards in a Sydney living room, or a bookcase in a home in Seattle.

Illegal logging contributes between 15% en 30% of the global wood trade, according to Interpol. China is a major buyer of the world’s illegal timber, according to environmental groups, especially from Pacific nations like PNG and Solomon Islands, which are implicated in illegal or unsustainable logging.

The path of this timber, from Pacific forests to western homes via carrier ships and Chinese factories is a murky one. But – according to shipping and customs data, and the findings of a two-year investigation by the international NGO Global Witness – it looks something like this:

Once the logs are felled, in, say the Pomio district of East New Britain province, they are put on to a large bulk carrier ship, possibly registered to Panama, where they spend about 14 days on the open sea before arriving in China. Meer as 90% of wood exports from PNG, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu end up in China.

The timber travels another couple of hundred kilometres up the Yangtze River, past the financial centre of Shanghai, and the vessel pulls in where the river widens and starts to curve at Zhangjiagang, a vast commercial import zone which receives 75% of China’s log imports.

Public information about who owns the wood on the ships is difficult to find. Global Witness’s 2016 investigation found that 15 companies were responsible for about 85% of the PNG log imports, although some were acting as agents for other companies.

Much of PNG’s exported timber – worth more than US$620m in 2019 – comes from special agricultural business leases, the controversial land leases which were declared illegal in 2016 but mostly continued to operate regardless.

Many of the Chinese companies buy from a Malaysian-owned SABL operation in PNG, and ship the wood directly to their processing plant or distributors. Others might go through buying agents stationed at the port, of, like the major timber company Ningbo Jianfa, advertise their product on Chinese social media.

As far as some Chinese buyers are concerned, the fact that timber logs are able to leave PNG is proof enough that the trade is legal.

“They must have granted a certificate to be able to cut down wood in those countries, ek dink,” Zhuo Weiyong, a manager at a major Chinese timber company, tells the Guardian.

“What we imported is all legal, we usually buy the timber from Malaysians in PNG and Solomon Islands. About the situation of [illegal logging] – I don’t know much about it.”

Up until this point of the import process, the source of the wood is still identifiable, with information including species or the ID number of the logging area spraypainted or on barcoded tags attached to the end of logs.

But when they are sent to a processing factory, maybe at China’s largest solid wood flooring manufacturing hub in Nanxun, a two-day canal trip away on a crowded barge, the trail goes cold.

Crane-lifted off the barge and on to a flatbed truck, the logs go to a factory where the rough ends are sliced off and the products are mixed together to be sliced into indistinguishable planks for flooring manufacturers or to makers of plywood or veneers.

Some are then exported to other countries, including the US or Australia (which received more than $460m in wood exports from China in 2019), while most is sold domestically for product manufacturing or construction, including tourist sites and the building of replica ancient temples.

In its investigation, Global Witness identified seven companies exporting flooring to the US, potentially made from illegally harvested PNG timber, in breach of US law.

It contacted 10 US companies selling taun wood products, including the homewares giant Home Depot, which told the organisation it had already discontinued some lines, but asked to collaborate on expanding its sustainable purchasing policies. Its supplier, Home Legend, told Global Witness it had decided to stop buying flooring made with PNG and Solomon Islands wood, “due to the risks associated with sourcing from these countries”.

Where other countries have laws in place preventing the purchase of illegally harvested timber, China doesn’t yet.

The country is trying to close the loopholes for illegal timber suppliers. In 2019 the National People’s Congress approved revisions to the forestry law, to stipulate “no organisation or individual may purchase, process, and transport woods in full awareness of their illegal origins such as illegal felling or wanton deforestation”, although it’s not clear that it applies to imports.

Legal analysts have said it could be a “game changer” if it’s applied as such and properly enforced.

“It will depend on the level of political support they’ll have in terms of ensuring that it’s effectively implemented,” said Allison Hoare, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.

Based on conversations with suppliers, wholesalers and retailers, there appears to still be low awareness along the supply chain of where their wood came from, suggesting a high risk that companies in countries with established regulations are still receiving illegally harvested wood as end products.

And Global Witness’s Beibei Yin says it isn’t aware of the law being used against any importers since it came into effect in July.

“In our view, it will be very hard if not impossible to use this revised law for sanctioning illegal imports, especially due to the requirements to prove that companies are knowingly engaged in this," sy sê.

The supply chain process suggests that the only point authorities can effectively enforce the “full awareness” is at the point of import, Yin says: “If the importers carry out due diligence and stay away from illegal or high risk wood, then companies downstream would be at much less risk.”

China’s foreign ministry did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment.

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