Cor­rup­tion Stains Tim­ber Trade

Forests De­stroyed in China’s Race to Feed Global Wood-Pro­cess­ing In­dus­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Peter S. Good­man and Peter Finn

MY­ITKY­INA, Burma — The Chi­nese log­ging boss set his sights on a thickly forested moun­tain just inside Burma, aiming to har­vest one of the last nat­u­ral stands of teak on Earth.

He handed a rice sack stuffed with $8,000 worth of Chi­nese cur­rency to two agents with con­nec­tions in the Burmese bor­der­lands, the men said in in­ter­views. They used that stash to bribe ev­ery­one stand­ing be­tween the teak and China. In came Chi­nese log­ging crews. Out went huge logs, over Chi­nese-built roads.

About 2,500 miles to the north­east, Chi- nese and Rus­sian crews hacked into the vir­gin forests of the Rus­sian Far East and Siberia, haul­ing away 250-year-old Korean pines in of­ten-il­le­gal deals, ac­cord­ing to trad­ing com­pa­nies and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. In the high­lands of Pa­pua New Guinea, In­done­sia and Africa and in the forests of the Ama­zon, log­gers work­ing be­yond the bounds of the law have sent a cease­less flow of tim­ber to China.

Some of the largest swaths of nat­u­ral for­est left on the planet are be­ing dis­man­tled at an alarm­ing pace to feed a global wood­pro­cess­ing in­dus­try cen­tered in coastal China.

Moun­tains of logs, many of them har­vested in ex­cess of le­gal lim­its aimed at pre- serv­ing forests, are stream­ing to­ward Chi­nese fac­to­ries where work­ers churn out such prod­ucts as furniture and floor­boards. Th­ese wares are shipped from China to ma­jor re­tail­ers such as Ikea, Home De­pot, Lowe’s and many oth­ers. They land in homes and of­fices in the United States and Europe, bought by shop­pers with lit­tle inkling of the wood’s ori­gins or the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs of chop­ping it down.

“West­ern con­sumers are leav­ing a vi­o­lent eco­log­i­cal foot­print in Burma and other coun­tries,” said an Amer­i­can en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist who fre­quently trav­els to Burma and goes by the pen name Zao Noam to pre­serve

ac­cess to the au­thor­i­tar­ian coun­try. “Pre­dom­i­nantly, the Burmese tim­ber winds up as pa­tio furniture for Amer­i­cans. With­out their de­mand, there wouldn’t be a tim­ber trade.”

At the cur­rent pace of cut­ting, nat­u­ral forests in In­done­sia and Burma — which send more than half their ex­ported logs to China — will be ex­hausted within a decade, ac­cord­ing to re­search by For­est Trends, a con­sor­tium of in­dus­try and con­ser­va­tion groups. Forests in Pa­pua New Guinea will be con­sumed in as lit­tle as 13 years, and those in the Rus­sian Far East within two decades.

Th­ese forests are a bul­wark against global warm­ing, cap­tur­ing car­bon diox­ide that would oth­er­wise con­trib­ute to heat­ing the planet. They hold some of the rich­est flora and fauna any­where, and they have sup­plied gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple with liveli­hoods that are now threat­ened.

In the world’s poor­est coun­tries, il­le­gal log­ging on pub­lic lands an­nu­ally costs gov­ern­ments $10 bil­lion in lost as­sets and rev­enues, a fig­ure more than six times the aid th­ese na­tions re­ceive to help pro­tect forests, a World Bank study found last year.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists have prod­ded some of the largest pur­vey­ors of wood prod­ucts to adopt con­ser­va­tion poli­cies. In­dus­try lead­ers and con­ser­va­tion­ists have crafted stan­dards meant to give forests time to re­gen­er­ate. They cer­tify op­er­a­tions that com­ply and en­cour­age con­sumers to buy cer­ti­fied goods.

But such ef­forts are in their in­fancy and are vul­ner­a­ble to abuse. Cor­rup­tion be­dev­ils the tim­ber trade in poor coun­tries.

“What we’ve done very well so far with cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is to re­ward the best play­ers in the mar­ket­place,” said Ned Daly, vice pres­i­dent of U.S. op­er­a­tions for a lead­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion body, the For­est Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil. “What we haven’t done very well is to fig­ure out how to ex­clude the worst play­ers. We’re hav­ing a hard time get­ting the crim­i­nals to la­bel their prod­ucts ‘il­le­gal.’ ”

This story is the re­sult of a year-long Wash­ing­ton Post in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­volv­ing re­port­ing in China, Rus­sia, In­done­sia, Burma, Thai­land, Sin­ga­pore and the United States. The Post in­ter­viewed gov­ern­ment of­fi­cers, diplo­mats, log­ging com­pa­nies, traders, re­tail­ers, en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists and ad­vo­cates. Given the risks of dis­cussing il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity, The Post some­times granted anonymity to its in­for­mants — par­tic­u­larly in Burma, where the agents who bro­kered a log­ging deal with mil­i­tary com­man­ders dis­played their bribe ledgers on the con­di­tion they not be named.

From Asian Forests to Ikea Show­rooms

The in­dus­try that con­nects forests in Asia with liv­ing rooms in the United States via the sawmills of China is a quin­tes­sen­tial prod­uct of glob­al­iza­tion. As trans­porta­tion links ex­pand and tech­nol­ogy erodes dis­tance, multi­na­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions can draw sup­plies from al­most any­where and ship goods ev­ery­where.

No com­pany bet­ter sym­bol­izes this re­al­ity than Ikea, the Swedish home-fur­nish­ings gi­ant. Ikea cul­ti­vates a green im­age, fill­ing its cav­ernous stores — in­clud­ing three in the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton cor­ri­dor — with signs as­sert­ing that its prod­ucts are made in ways that min­i­mize en­vi­ron­men­tal harm.

But in Suifenhe, a wood-pro­cess­ing hub in north­east­ern China, work­ers at Yixin Wood In­dus­try Corp. fash­ion 100,000 pine din­ing sets a year for Ikea us­ing tim­ber from the neigh­bor­ing Rus­sian Far East, where the World Bank says half of all log­ging is il­le­gal.

“Ikea will pro­vide some guid­ance, such as a list of en­dan­gered species we can’t use, but they never send peo­ple to su­per­vise the pur­chas­ing,” said a fac­tory sales man­ager who spoke on con­di­tion she be iden­ti­fied by only her fam­ily name, Wu. “Ba­si­cally, they just let us pick what wood we want.”

China is Ikea’s largest sup­plier of solid wood furniture, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. In 2006, about 100 Chi­nese fac­to­ries man­u­fac­tured about one-fourth of the com­pany’s global stock. Rus­sia is Ikea’s largest source of wood, pro­vid­ing one-fifth of its world­wide sup­ply. Ikea ex­ec­u­tives said they are con­fi­dent this wood is le­gal, be­cause the com­pany dis­patches au­di­tors and pro­fes­sional foresters to fac­to­ries and traces wood to log­ging sites.

But Ikea has only two foresters in China and three in Rus­sia, the com­pany said. It an­nu­ally in­spects log­ging sites that pro­duce about 30 per­cent of the wood im­ported by its Chi­nese fac­to­ries, more com­monly re­ly­ing on pa­per­work pro­duced by log­ging com­pa­nies and fac­to­ries.

“Fal­si­fi­ca­tion of doc­u­ments is ram­pant,” ac­knowl­edged Sofie Beck­ham, Ikea’s forestry co­or­di­na­tor. “There’s al­ways some­body who wants to break the rules.”

Send­ing more peo­ple to in­spect log­ging sites would make Ikea’s prod­ucts more ex­pen­sive.

“It’s about cost,” said Ikea’s global man­ager for so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal af­fairs, Thomas Bergmark. “It would take enor­mous re­sources if we trace back each and ev­ery wood sup­ply chain. We can never guar­an­tee that each and ev­ery log is from the right source.”

Two years ago, Ikea set a goal that by 2009, at least 30 per­cent of the wood for its prod­ucts will be cer­ti­fied by the For­est Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil. But now, the com­pany says, only 4 per­cent of the wood used to make its wares in China meets that grade.

The Ecosys­tem Ef­fect

China’s vo­ra­cious ap­petite for for­eign tim­ber is the di­rect re­sult of its cam­paign to pro­tect its own forests, even as its de­mand for wood has ex­ploded.

In 1998, floods along China’s Yangtze River killed 3,600 peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment, blam­ing de­for­esta­tion, im­posed log­ging bans — par­tic­u­larly in Yun­nan prov­ince, bor­der­ing Burma. What log­ging goes on must ad­here to plans for re­gen­er­a­tion.

China also un­leashed an am­bi­tious re­plant­ing ef­fort, ex­pand­ing its for­est cover by an area the size of Ne­braska from 2000 to 2005. A 2005 as­sess­ment of the world’s forests by the U.N. Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion pointed to China’s re­plant­ing as the pri­mary rea­son Asia’s to­tal for­est cover grew dur­ing that pe­riod, even as de­for­esta­tion con­tin­ued world­wide “at an alarm­ingly high rate.”

But in those same years, un­prece­dented ex­pan­sion has un­folded at China’s fac­to­ries, re­quir­ing enor­mous quan­ti­ties of wood. In 2005, China ex­ported $8.8 bil­lion worth of wood furniture, an eight­fold in­crease from 1998, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese cus­toms data. About 40 per­cent landed in the United States. China’s ex­ports of all tim­ber prod­ucts, in­clud­ing ply­wood and floor­boards, ex­ceeded $17 bil­lion in 2005, nearly five times the 1997 level.

All that wood had to come from some­where. In the years since China en­acted its log­ging bans, it be­came the world’s largest im­porter of trop­i­cal logs, ac­cord­ing to the FAO. Its log im­ports swelled nearly nine­fold in a decade, reach­ing $5.6 bil­lion in 2006, ac­cord­ing to China’s State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

China’s im­ports of wood and ex­ports of fin­ished wood prod­ucts are both ex­pected to dou­ble again over the next decade, ac­cord­ing to For­est Trends.

What­ever en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits have re­sulted from China’s re­plant­ing have been un­done by the dam­age to the trop­i­cal re­gions now sup­ply­ing so many of its logs, said Mette Wilkie, the U.N. of­fi­cer in Rome who co­or­di­nated the FAO re­port. China is pri­mar­ily adding tree plan­ta­tions with lit­tle bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity. Much of the log­ging in Burma, the Rus­sian Far East, In­done­sia and Pa­pua New Guinea is as­sail­ing nat­u­ral forests that hold crea­tures and plants found nowhere else.

“You’re los­ing trop­i­cal rain­for­est, and you’re gain­ing ar­eas of plan­ta­tion, and that of course is a con­cern,” Wilkie said. “A lot of the bio­di­ver­sity is found in the moist forests.”

The FAO re­port found grave en­vi­ron­men­tal risks — par­tic­u­larly in In­done­sia, home to 10 to 15 per­cent of all known an­i­mal, plant and bird species. Sev­eral species are im­per­iled, among them the Su­ma­tran tiger, ac­cord­ing to the World Con­ser­va­tion Union in Switzer­land. In Burma, tigers, red pan­das and leop­ards are threat­ened as log­ging roads open forests to a range of ex­ploita­tion, a dy­namic at play across South­east Asia.

“The ar­rival of log­ging op­er­a­tions has an im­me­di­ate and dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect,” said Jake Brun­ner, a re­gional en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist for Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional. “We see a frag­men­ta­tion of the for­est and a col­lapse” in


More than 1 bil­lion peo­ple in poor coun­tries de­pend on forests for their liveli­hoods, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. As forests are de­graded, and as log­ging pro­ceeds on steep slopes, al­low­ing soil to wash away, com­mu­ni­ties are suf­fer­ing from flood­ing, for­est fires and a dearth of game.

“Whole ecosys­tems are be­ing wiped out,” said Horst Wey­er­haeuser, a forester with the World Agro­forestry Cen­tre re­search group who ad­vises the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment.

Mean­while, the spoils of the tim­ber trade are mo­nop­o­lized by those who con­trol the trees, typ­i­cally lo­cal au­thor­i­ties act­ing with mil­i­tary groups.

“For lo­cal peo­ple, it just gets more dif­fi­cult,” said a com­mu­nity leader in Kachin state, in North­east­ern Burma, bor­der­ing China, where Chi­nese log­ging has stripped moun­tains bare. He spoke on con­di­tion that he be iden­ti­fied only by his given name, Shaung, cit­ing threats to his safety. “The com­man­ders sell our nat­u­ral re­sources and our lo­cal peo­ple get noth­ing.”

‘Take-and-Run Sys­tem’

The buzzing sawmills and clat­ter­ing furniture plants in China ex­plain why the pace of log­ging in Pa­pua New Guinea is four times faster than legally per­mit­ted, ac­cord­ing to For­est Trends. It ex­plains why ships ferry logs to China from the African na­tion of Gabon, where 70 per­cent of log­ging is il­le­gal, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. It ex­plains why Chi­nese traders armed with cash line the Rus­sian border, over­whelm­ing the reg­u­la­tors charged with pre­serv­ing trees.

“There is no strat­egy for for­est re­sources,” said Alexei Lankin, a re­searcher at the Pa­cific Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­sti­tute in Vladi­vos­tok, Rus­sia. “What you have is a take­and-run sys­tem.”

Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties ac­knowl­edge they rarely chal­lenge im­ports. As long as ship­ments are ac­com­pa­nied by har­vest per­mits is­sued by au­thor­i­ties in the coun­try of ori­gin, cus­toms of­fi­cers al­low the wood in, mak­ing no ef­fort to au­then­ti­cate the pa­per­work.

“China can only en­sure that the log­ging com­pa­nies and traders obey Chi­nese law,” said a re­searcher in Bei­jing af­fil­i­ated with the State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “What they do in other coun­tries is not some­thing the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment can con­trol.”

Each year, il­le­gal log­ging costs In­done­sia at least $600 mil­lion in lost roy­al­ties and ex­port taxes, more than dou­ble what the gov­ern­ment spent to sub­si­dize food for the poor in 2001, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. Five years ago, China pledged to help In­done­sia halt ship­ments of mer­bau, a threat­ened tree species. Ship­pers have evaded an In­done­sian ban on ex­ports of mer­bau logs by trans­port­ing them through Malaysia, forg­ing doc­u­ments say­ing that the trees were har­vested there, Chi­nese traders said. But China has done noth­ing to fol­low through. “They said they have no author­ity to im­ple­ment this kind of agree­ment,” com­plained Tachir Fat­moni of the In­done­sian Forestry Min­istry. “Mer­bau is still get­ting to China.”

North of Shang­hai, the Zhangji­a­gang port has be­come per­haps the largest trad­ing place on Earth for trop­i­cal logs. Ac­cord­ing to state fig­ures, $500 mil­lion worth of wood passed through the port in 2004.

One morn­ing a year ago, tens of thou­sands of logs laid stacked on the muddy banks. A four-story ho­tel next to the port had be­come a trad­ing house where buy­ers from furniture and floor­ing fac­to­ries hag­gled over cups of green tea. A bul­letin board in the lobby was jammed with of­fers for logs from South Amer­ica and Africa, and one trader whis­pered to a vis­i­tor that for the right price, he could get his hands on mer­bau.

Bribery at the Border

In the rugged moun­tains of south­west­ern China, au­to­mo­biles worth more than many vil­lagers earn in a life­time tra­verse dirt roads, a tes­ta­ment to the riches that Chi­nese tim­ber mer­chants are ex­tract­ing from nextdoor Burma. The trade amounts to a joint ven­ture be­tween China’s fron­tier cap­i­tal­ists and cor­rupt Burmese gen­er­als lead­ing one of the world’s most re­pres­sive regimes.

For more than four decades, Burma’s mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship has plun­dered the coun­try’s nat­u­ral re­sources. In the north­east, eth­nic Kachin mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties re­sisted the regime’s rule with a long-run­ning guer­rilla war, un­til they signed cease-fire deals with the Burmese gov­ern­ment in the 1990s. The Kachin had been sus­tained by jade min­ing, but as those rights went to the gov­ern­ment, they shifted ag­gres­sively into log­ging, lean­ing on Chi­nese part­ners for cap­i­tal, la­bor­ers and trans­port.

The cross-border log trade swelled by 60 per­cent be­tween 2001 and 2004, reach­ing $350 mil­lion in 2005, ac­cord­ing to a Lon­don en­vi­ron­men­tal group, Global Wit­ness. With com­pet­ing Burmese gen­er­als in­volved and some us­ing force to evict vil­lagers in the way, con­trol over land is in flux, con­tribut­ing to for­est de­struc­tion: Chi­nese log­ging crews work fast, cog­nizant that new armed forces could show up any minute and shut them down.

“You bribe one army and you get the right to cut ev­ery­thing,” said Li Tao, a Chi­nese log­ger pre­par­ing last May to sneak across the border from the Chi­nese town of Ruili. “Then an­other army comes and threat­ens to ar­rest you, and you have to bribe them, too.”

Eth­nic Kachin agents work­ing for a Chi­nese log­ging boss con­sented to in­ter­views in My­itky­ina, a town in north­east­ern Burma, on the con­di­tion of anonymity, cit­ing fears they would be im­pris­oned or killed. They said they wished to pub­li­cize the de­tails of the trade to bring in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on Burma’s gov­ern­ment to aid lo­cal peo­ple.

“We know what we are do­ing is rot­ten,” one agent said. “There is noth­ing else for us to do. This is how we are sur­viv­ing.”

They dis­played a log­book show­ing records of the bribes they said they paid to fa­cil­i­tate teak log­ging in the Sinpo area be­gin­ning in Oc­to­ber 2004 through March 2006: $200 per year to the lo­cal po­lice, $250 to the forestry de­part­ment, $225 to the Burmese mil­i­tary spe­cial intelligence and $950 to the lo­cal brigade of the Burmese army, plus $8,000 worth of gold to bat­tal­ion-level lead­ers. The Chi­nese boss in­de­pen­dently fun­neled $4,000 each to five of­fi­cers in the north­ern re­gional com­mand, the Kachin men said.

In Jan­uary 2005, the agents said, a crew of more than 120 Chi­nese work­ers slipped into Burma and set up camp on a moun­tain­top near the town of Bhamo, adding the whine of chain­saws to the screech­ing of jun­gle in­sects. “They cut the whole moun­tain,” one agent said. “They cut it all.”

Car­a­vans of 10 and 20 trucks, each car­ry­ing about 20 logs, fer­ried the wood into China. The Kachin agents said they rode ahead on mo­tor­bikes, giv­ing sol­diers $40 per truck at eight gov­ern­ment check­points. Where the gov­ern­ment’s con­trol yields to the ter­ri­tory of a sep­a­ratist group, the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Or­ga­ni­za­tion, they paid $125 per truck to Burmese sol­diers, $83 to the forestry de­part­ment and $25 to the drug po­lice. At Laiza, the fi­nal stop be­fore the border, the Kachin group col­lected a tax from the Chi­nese truck­ers, then is­sued doc­u­ments declar­ing the ship­ments le­git­i­mate.

In the first six months of 2005, this op­er­a­tion hauled 150 truck­loads of teak into China, with each truck car­ry­ing about 20 tons, the men said. On the other side of the border, each ton fetched nearly $1,000, mak­ing the to­tal haul worth about $3 mil­lion.

Last May, in one hour, a re­porter counted six big trucks loaded with logs as they made their way down a nar­row, wind­ing road from the border to­ward the Chi­nese town of Yingjiang.

‘This Keeps My Child in School’

At the op­po­site edge of China, along the me­an­der­ing border with Rus­sia, the log­ging trade has trans­formed back­wa­ter towns into bustling hives. Rus­sia has be­come China’s pri­mary wood sup­plier, with ship­ments mul­ti­ply­ing 20-fold in less than a decade.

In Vos­tok, a Rus­sian town of 4,000 with crum­bling Soviet-era apart­ment blocks, vil­lagers re­ceive about $100 a month to haul logs from the for­est. Chi­nese work­ers run sawmills across the re­gion.

South of Vos­tok, just out­side the Rus­sian town of Roshino, eight Chi­nese work­ers sliced oak and ash trees into planks one day last year, at a small plant where they also live, sleep­ing on cots in con­verted of­fices. Piles of oak and ash awaited the saw blades. At the railyard in the city of Dal­nerechensk, freight cars bore loads of Korean pine and lin­den trees — both pro­tected species — with the cargo bound for furniture fac­to­ries in China.

Shi Dian­gang is typ­i­cal of the en­trepreneurs who con­trol the trade. He once sold cloth­ing to Rus­sian tourists on the border. Now he brings la­bor­ers from China into Rus­sia, pay­ing them $375 per month to work 12- to 15hour days, pry­ing wood from the for­est. He sells tim­ber to Chi­nese traders who sup­ply Chi­nese fac­to­ries that he says make furniture for Ikea. He is shop­ping for a villa in Ma­cau, the gam­bling mecca. He tells time with a gold watch. “It’s been hell to heaven,” he said. Shi op­er­ates inside Rus­sia largely free of reg­u­la­tion, with his busi­ness part­ner’s gov­ern­ment pedi­gree ren­der­ing ev­ery­thing le­gal, he said.

“The Rus­sian com­pany set­tles all the doc­u­ments,” he said. “Rus­sia has very loose con­trols.”

Al­ready, log­ging has laid bare much of the Rus­sian for­est bor­der­ing China. Crews are mov­ing farther into the in­te­rior, pen­e­trat­ing of­fi­cially pro­tected ter­rain. In the Pri­morsky re­gion — an area rich with wildlife, in­clud­ing 450 Amur tigers, the world’s largest cat — Yappy lum­ber com­pany strug­gles to sat­isfy or­ders from its Chi­nese cus­tomers for un­pro­cessed oak and ash logs.

“The for­est is ex­hausted,” com­plained Alexan­der Sobchenko, the com­pany’s gen­eral-di­rec­tor.

The Rus­sian For­est Ser­vice is­sues li­censes for cut­ting in pro­tected ar­eas un­der the guise of so-called san­i­ta­tion log­ging, to re­move sick or fallen trees. In Pri­morsky, one-third of ex­ported logs have been cut un­der such li­censes, ac­cord­ing to Josh Newell, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton.

“San­i­ta­tion log­ging is a cover to get into ar­eas that should be pro­tected,” he said.

Last year, Rus­sia’s en­vi­ron­men­tal pros­e­cu­tor opened a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Forestry Ser­vice of­fi­cials af­ter 14 firms with such li­censes har­vested 1.3 mil­lion cu­bic feet of wood in a pro­tected zone near Vos­tok. The logs were ex­ported to China with doc­u­men­ta­tion, prose­cu­tors said. How much more passed through un­de­tected no one re­ally knows: About the size of Florida, Pri­morsky has 12 for­est in­spec­tors.

“Bar­baric” is one word Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has used to as­sail the “crit­i­cal prob­lem” of il­le­gal log­ging. By ship­ping logs out of the coun­try, Rus­sia is ex­port­ing tens of thou­sands of jobs that would go to Rus­sians if the coun­try had more sawmills and furniture fac­to­ries. “Our neigh­bors con­tinue to earn bil­lions of dol­lars re­ly­ing on Rus­sian tim­ber,” Putin said.

Across the border, in the Chi­nese city of Suifenhe, 11 freight trains were loaded with logs one morn­ing about a year ago, some be­ing off­loaded, oth­ers bound for fac­tory towns through­out the coun­try. Shacks of cor­ru­gated tin and dis­carded tree bark en­cir­cled the rail yard — homes for mi­grant work­ers who have swelled the city’s pop­u­la­tion to more than 100,000 from 20,000 a decade ago.

On seem­ingly ev­ery lane, sawmills filled the air with black smoke, the scent of fresh saw­dust and the screech of metal blades bit­ing wood. Some were jury-rigged op­er­a­tions manned by work­ers lack­ing safety gog­gles and gloves. At Jindi Wood com­pany near the rail yard, four men strained to haul huge logs to the saws with slats hung over their shoul­ders. They earn $250 a week for seven days of work.

“This keeps my child in school,” said Xiao Jifeng, 35, whose wife and son re­mained in his vil­lage, a six-hour bus ride away.

Con­struc­tion crews were fill­ing the hori­zon with brick vil­las for the bosses, as a mod­ern city took shape on once-empty plains.

“Four years ago, there was noth­ing here,” said Su Guan­glin, chair­man of Guofeng Wood Co., a Hong Kong firm that em­ploys 500 work­ers at a floor­board plant in Suifenhe. Guofeng ships nearly all its prod­ucts over­seas, about one-third to the United States, mainly through Arm­strong, a prom­i­nent Penn­syl­va­nia brand of floor prod­ucts.

A China-Rus­sia trad­ing of­fice was go­ing up be­hind the fac­tory. Empty grass­land had been trans­formed into a pub­lic square fringed with neon-lighted restau­rants and night­clubs of­fer­ing Co­gnac and hired fe­male com­pan­ion­ship. Ox­carts shared dusty roads with black Audi sedans.

Mov­ing to Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion

The For­est Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil, a body cre­ated by en­vi­ron­men­tal and in­dus­try groups in 1990, sets stan­dards for the sus­tain­able use of forests. The move­ment has gained high-profile mem­bers, in­clud­ing Ikea and Home De­pot.

Home De­pot con­ducts top-to-bot­tom in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the prod­ucts on its shelves, re­fus­ing to buy from ven­dors who can­not ver­ify the wood’s ori­gin, said Ron Jarvis, the com­pany’s mer­chan­dis­ing vice pres­i­dent.

Home De­pot sold some $400 mil­lion in prod­ucts cer­ti­fied by the FSC in 2005, com­pared with $15 mil­lion in 1999. Still, those re­cent sales rep­re­sented less than 5 per­cent of the com­pany’s to­tal wood-prod­uct sales.

“If we could get 100 per­cent of our wood cer­ti­fied, we would do it to­mor­row,” Jarvis said. “But we have to do it on a com­mer­cial ba­sis.”

In China, 20 com­pa­nies per month are gain­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, said Alis­tair Mon­u­ment, the FSC’s coun­try di­rec­tor in Bei­jing. In the floor­board and furniture fac­to­ries of Guang­dong prov­ince in south­ern China, man­age­ment ver­nac­u­lar now in­cludes for­est con­ser­va­tion.

“All the big Chi­nese com­pa­nies ex­port­ing to the United States are re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to this is­sue now,” said She Xue­bin, pres­i­dent of one of China’s largest floor­ing com­pa­nies, Ying­bin (Guang­dong) Wood In­dus­try Co.

But many ma­jor West­ern brands have de­clined to join. Four-fifths of Ying­bin’s ex­ports go to the United States, some to Arm­strong. Much of Ying­bin’s wood comes from a sawmill in In­done­sia, where as much as 80 per­cent of the log­ging is il­le­gal, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. Ying­bin’s pres­i­dent ac­knowl­edged “there’s a gap be­tween the law and en­force­ment,” though he said his com­pany plays by the rules.

Arm­strong does not re­quire that Ying­bin or its four other China sup­pli­ers meet the stan­dards of a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion body such as the FSC. Arm­strong buys South­east Asian mer­bau for floor­ing that it sells as “ex­otic,” list­ing only the coun­try of fi­nal man­u­fac­ture — typ­i­cally the United States — but not the wood’s source.

“I just don’t think there’s a need for it,” said Frank J. Ready, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Arm­strong Floor Prod­ucts North Amer­ica.

Ready and his coun­ter­part at Ying­bin said they do not trade in wood from one coun­try that is syn­ony­mous with hu­man-rights abuse — Burma. Yet as a re­porter toured Ying­bin’s floor­ing fac­tory in the Chi­nese city of Zhong­shan last spring, a pile of teak boards sat on the floor. “It’s from Burma,” a worker said. In the south­ern Chi­nese city of Guangzhou, mer­chants at Yuzhu lum­ber­yard hawked piles of Burmese teak to buy­ers from sur­round­ing furniture fac­to­ries. In Shang­hai, mar­ket­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives for one of China’s largest floor­ing com­pa­nies, Anxin, boasted that they had a large and steady sup­ply of Burmese teak.

They were ex­port­ing it to the United States, they said.

Through which chan­nels, they would not say. Good­man re­ported from China, Burma, Thai­land and Sin­ga­pore. Finn re­ported from Rus­sia. Correspondent Ellen Nakashima in In­done­sia, spe­cial correspondent Eva Woo in China, and staff writer Justin Gil­lis in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.


A rail­way in north­east China re­ceives tim­ber from the Rus­sian Far East, where the World Bank says half of all log­ging is il­le­gal. Ikea prod­ucts are made here and sent to the United States.


The Zhangji­a­gang port north of Shang­hai is a key en­try point for il­le­gally logged hard­woods from South­east Asia and Africa used for furniture and floor­ing that is ex­ported to ma­jor U.S. re­tail­ers such as Home De­pot, Ikea and Lowe’s.


Work­ers at a Chi­nese sawmill carry logs brought in from the Rus­sian Far East. While trad­ing com­pa­nies and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists say Rus­sian tim­ber is of­ten har­vested il­le­gally, Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties ac­knowl­edge that they rarely chal­lenge im­ports. Cus­toms of­fi­cers don’t ver­ify per­mits is­sued in the logs’ coun­try of ori­gin and doc­u­ments are of­ten forged.

At the Zhangji­a­gang port, traders ad­ver­tise hard­wood logs from South­east Asia and Africa. Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese state fig­ures, $500 mil­lion worth of wood passed through the port in 2004.

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