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China's Demand for Wood Destroying Ancient Forests

The environmental protection group Greenpeace says China's illegal trade in the endangered merbau tree is destroying ancient forests and speeding up the tree's extinction. The wood is smuggled from rainforests in Southeast Asia to feed wealthy nations' demand for high-end wood products. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

Greenpeace says Chinese customs officials ignore blatant smuggling and illegal logging of the endangered merbau tree in order to profit from the demand in wealthy countries for high quality hardwood flooring and furniture.

The rare tree is found mainly in the rainforests of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea where, according to the World Bank, up to 80 percent of logging is illegal.

The environmental group on Tuesday released a report saying that despite an Indonesian ban on all log exports since 2001, Chinese customs figures show China last year imported nearly 36,000 cubic meters of logs from Indonesia, over 7,700 of which were from merbau trees.

The report says the legal trade in merbau timber will lead to its extinction within 35 years, but the illegal trade, mainly to China, will "dramatically shorten" that lifetime.

Tamara Stark, an author of the report, says smugglers use forged documents claiming logs are from Malaysia to get them into China, the world's second largest wood product manufacturer.

"Almost all the traders we talked to readily admit that they know that this wood is being smuggled in. They know it's illegal," she said. "But, because it's commanding such a high price in the international market they're willing to proceed with that and take the risks."

Stark says no Chinese trader that she is aware of has ever been seriously punished for the illegal trade. She says the targeting of merbau trees to feed China's manufacturers is driving the destruction of the rainforest.

"In many cases only one to five merbau trees are found per hectare," she said. "The challenge is, the logging industry is only interested in the merbau, but they have to clear huge swathes at/of the forest to get to those few trees."

Stark cited a study in Papua New Guinea saying on average 45 other kinds of trees were cut down and left to rot just to get to one merbau tree.

China's Foreign Ministry Tuesday brushed aside suggestions China was fueling rainforest destruction.

Greenpeace says stronger enforcement of logging is needed, and has shown results in the past. When Indonesia cracked down on smuggling of raw logs in 2005, Chinese customs figures showed a dramatic drop in imports, from 890,000 cubic meters in 2004 to 60,000 in 2006.

China is the world's biggest buyer of tropical wood, much of it illegally logged, which is then processed in China for export to Europe and the United States.