Illegal Timber Trade Destroying Indonesian Rainforests

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 6, 2004 (ENS) - The thriving illegal trade in a rare tropical hardwood is fueling the destruction of Indonesian rainforests and is moving the orangutan and other endangered species closer to extinction, environmentalists said here Thursday.

Trade in timber from ramin, an endangered Indonesian tree species, is regulated and restricted by international treaty, but officials are doing little to stop a steady stream of the illegally cut Indonesian hardwood from slipping through Malaysian ports out into the world market.

A new report documenting the trade finds Malaysia plays a key role in the trade, which is undermining the international community's efforts to protect endangered species and to crack down on illegal logging.

"The ramin case is particularly damaging, as it shows Malaysia to be willfully undermining an international convention," Julian Newman of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which released the report documenting the trade along with Telapak, an Indonesian partner organization.

A coalition of U.S. environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, Rainforest Action Network, Earthjustice, and Orangutan Foundation International joined the EIA in calling on the U.S. government to raise the issue with Malaysia and impose trade sanctions unless Malaysia "takes meaningful action to resolve the problem."

Ramin is found in Malaysia and Indonesia, but demand for the popular hardwood has decimated many forests.

Indonesia banned trade and export of ramin in August 2001 through the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). nuclear

The report documents illegal logging in protected areas of Indonesia. This shot is from Tanjung Puting National Park. (Photo courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency)
Malaysia did not agree to the ramin ban, but as a CITES signatory it is required to document the origin of ramin timber.

The report finds extensive evidence tracing illegally cut Indonesian ramin to Malaysia, where it is given false certificates of origin for export.

Malaysia is the largest tropical hardwood exporter in the world.

Investigators with the organizations posed as timber buyers and witnessed the direct involvement of military and police with Indonesian timber barons.

The environmental organizations also released video evidence of Malaysian businessmen boasting how they obtain government issued documents to export the smuggled ramin.

A single port in Malaysia handles up to 70,000 metric tons of ramin timber each year, according to the report, most of which is shipped to China and Taiwan which produce pool cues, mop handles and picture frames.

These consumer goods are shipped to U.S. and European markets without the permits required by CITES and sold to unsuspecting consumers.

"We are asking consumers not to buy any ramin products and for customs authorities to be especially vigilant in checking ramin shipments from Malaysia," Newman said.

In 2003, U.S. authorities seized more than 120,000 pieces of illegal ramin exported from China, most of which is believed to have been smuggled through Malaysia.

Forests being destroyed by illegal logging of ramin include national parks sheltering critically endangered orangutans, as well as Sumatran rhinoceros and Malayan sun bears.

Orangutan numbers in the wild have been reduced by 50 percent in the last decade and habitat destruction poses the greatest threat to their survival.

Indonesia is home to 80 percent of the world's remaining orangutans.

But illegal logging is rampant in Indonesia and ramin is only part of a much larger problem. The Indonesian government estimates some 90 percent of logging in the country is against the law, and a 2002 report by conservation groups found Indonesia is losing some 4.9 million acres of forest a year. orangutan

Biologists say the future is bleak for orangutans, which face shrinking habitat from illegal logging. (Photo courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency)
Environmentalists hope the upcoming meeting of the Convention of Biological Diversity will provide a forum for the international community to raise the issue of the illegal ramin trade.

The 11 day meeting, which marks the 10th anniversary of the global biodiversity agreement, begins Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A coalition of U.S. environmental groups - representing millions of individuals - joined the EIA in calling on the U.S government to raise the issue with Malaysia and impose trade sanctions under the U.S. Pelly Amendment unless Malaysia takes meaningful action to resolve the problem.

Under the Pelly Amendment, the U.S. government can determine that nationals of a foreign country, directly or indirectly, are engaging in trade that diminishes the effectiveness of an international environmental program for endangered or threatened species.

Once a country is so certified, the U.S. President has 60 days to consider trade sanctions and other measures against that country and inform Congress of the decision.

The United States is the world's largest importer and consumer of timber and wood products.