Battle to save Thai rosewood forests

Big criminal networks behind illegal logging
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 18 Feb 12;

BANGKOK: Hand-carved rosewood beds, tables and cabinets from China fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, making a few people rich but leaving Thailand's forests much poorer. Trees are being chopped down at an alarming rate in Thailand's last remaining rosewood forests in the north-east, the country's officials warned.

In the last month alone, 61 illegally harvested rosewood logs worth more than 11 million baht (S$452,000) were seized by police and forestry officials in the province of Si Sa Ket. Most were freshly cut and many were as long as 3m.

Mature trees are now hard to find there despite a nationwide logging ban and a network of protected areas. Across the region, roughly the size of the entire island nation of Sri Lanka, a special rosewood task force works deep in the forests and on rivers and highways to root out loggers and smugglers.

It is a daily - and nightly - battle.

One cubic metre of rosewood costs about 200,000 baht in Thailand - by the time it is smuggled into China, it is worth two million baht. Often, the wood is carved into furniture or figurines - the popular Laughing Buddha is a good example.

Big illegal operations ship rosewood in containers with false labels from major ports.

In October 2007, police raided a warehouse in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok, seizing more than 1,000 illegally harvested logs of rosewood ready to be shipped out of Klong Toey port in the capital. A Taiwanese man was arrested and charged with attempting to export the logs, which were worth more than 100 million baht, and dodging timber export taxes.

Rosewood is also extracted from the country by what one Thai police colonel called 'an army of ants'. The wood is chopped into pieces in the forest or in small rogue sawmills and often stashed in the forest for weeks.

Later, it is smuggled north to China piece by piece, often through Laos and Cambodia, in small boats, trucks, minivans and even small cars with the seats removed to make space for a few pieces.

Not surprisingly, the business is nasty and vicious, usually organised by transnational criminal networks which will deal with anything that delivers a profit - including drugs and wildlife. Tigers are a favourite commodity.

The more than 1,000 rangers of Thailand's Illegal Rosewood Logging Suppression Task Force are armed and they often get into firefights with loggers. In the last year alone, Thai patrolmen shot and killed 14 illegal Cambodian loggers.

Last month, the body of a Thai ranger was found at the Thai-Cambodian border. He had been missing since taking part in a crackdown on rosewood logging last November. But 12 Thai police officers were also implicated in the illegal rosewood trade last year.

In a report released on Wednesday in Bangkok to coincide with high-level meetings of environmental and wildlife crime enforcers from across the region, the independent Britain-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said: 'Official corruption facilitates the trade at every stage, from forests to borders or ports.'

Timber smuggling is usually controlled - not just in Thailand but also across South-east Asia - by 'large sophisticated criminal syndicates on an industrial scale', said EIA campaigner Faith Doherty.

Noting that many prominent public personalities across the region had built their fortunes by stealing natural resources, she added: 'The criminal justice system has been largely ineffective. To be honest, it's quite a joke.'

Mr Justin Gosling, an environmental crime officer with Interpol's Bangkok office, emphasised that there is a need for proactive intelligence gathering and sharing.

'The problem is that a seizure of a consignment is like finding a dead body,' he said. 'The crime has already been committed. It is a very reactive response. What we are calling for is for environmental crime to be taken as seriously as other kinds of serious crime.'

In the case of rosewood, the dwindling supply may have prompted people to stockpile it, driving prices even higher, Thai officials said.

'There are no more big trees left now,' said Mr Theeraphat Prayoonsithi, deputy director-general of the department of national parks.

The department has a budget for planting more than one million rosewood saplings - but the tree grows slowly, taking 30 to 40 years to reach a girth equal to that of a big man.

Thai enforcers want an increase in penalties for rosewood smuggling from the US$1,600 (S$2,000) fine and one-year jail term now. For a major smuggler, that is small potato. But any increase in penalties will have to be passed by Parliament, they said.

'We need to have the maximum penalty we can get,' said Mr Theeraphat.

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