The Numbers Game

Feature story - March 28, 2006
Imagine a football pitch as you've seen it many times. It's a bit less than one hectare in area. Now imagine that same football pitch packed end-to-end with a pile of wood around twice the height of Mt. Everest. That's the amount of forest that is imported into China every year, and the pile is getting higher.

Merbau timber from Indonesia stored at the Yuzhou Wood Market on the banks of the River Pearl, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China.

The developed industrial economies of North America, Europe, Japan and South Korea are timber gluttons and consume more timber than the planet can sustainably provide. That's the bad news. The worse news is that the timber over consumption habit is beginning to rub off on the emerging mega-economy of China.

A report recently released by Greenpeace called ' Sharing the Blame' shows that in the past 10 years, timber imports into China have increased by an enormous 4.5 fold to the double Mt. Everest sized pile mentioned above. This huge volume of extra timber isn't all being consumed in China however, with exports of timber products from China increasing by 3.5 fold in the same time period.

Whilst demand for timber products has risen sharply in China, the demand in the world's big industrial economies has remained at an all time high. China has become the clearinghouse for the world's timber with every second tropical tree traded in the world being sent to China. Unfortunately, much of the merchandise is stolen goods.

The forest is felled in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where between 76 to 90 percent of the logging is illegal, and shipped to China to be processed into plywood, furniture or paper and exported to the forest hungry economies of North America, Europe, Japan and South Korea.

' Sharing the Blame' isn't only about the frightening statistics of the global timber trade; it follows the illegally logged timber from the forest to the finished product in the shops and names the companies behind the illicit trade.

After being contacted by Greenpeace and presented with the evidence, some international timber buyers have already started to address the issue of purchasing timber products made from illegal logging. Numerous companies in Europe have made commitments to stop purchasing Chinese plywood made from illegally logged timber from Papua New Guinea.

The Chinese government has also started to publicly acknowledge that consumption issues must be tackled in China. In recognition of this problem, in late March of this year, the government imposed a 5 percent consumption tax on disposable chopsticks and hardwood flooring to try to stem the tide of forest destruction.

Whilst this is a good start, the fact that so many companies internationally have been purchasing illegal timber products without knowing or caring shows that governments of the world have to get tough with the illegal logging trade and ban imports of illegal timber products.

The responsibility for ending the over-exploitation of the world's last forests is shared equally between the producer and the consumer countries. The developed industrial economies of North America, Europe, Japan and South Korea need to dramatically reduce their consumption of timber products and China needs to find a way to develop its economy without simply following the poor example of the timber gluttons.

After all the numbers are added up and put into neat rows and columns of figures, it is easy to forget that what isn't shown in the statistics are lives; people's lives and the lives of the plants and animals of the forests. And if you put everything back together, all the pieces combine to equal a couple of Mt. Everests of ancient forest disappearing before our eyes.

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