The campaign to save Asia’s dwindling stock of Siamese rosewood trees by giving the species enhanced international protection has been tripped up by corruption and criminal activity in Laos and Cambodia, according to a new report issued Friday.
According to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), exports of the wood by Laos and Cambodia have more than outstripped the largest known wild stock of the trees since the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) recognized the trees’ plight.
“Laos and Cambodia have systemically disregarded the most basic legal safeguards of U.N. trade rules for endangered species in ways that seriously undermine the credibility of CITES, while edging Siamese rosewood ever closer to extinction,” said EIA Senior Forest Campaigner Jago Wadley.
“CITES intervention is urgently required.”
Signed over 40 years ago, CITES regulates or bans international trade in more than 30,000 animal and plant species. EIA wants CITES to ban trade in Siamese rosewood from Cambodia and Laos, a move that would make it illegal for the 181 signatories to the treaty to import the wood from those countries.
In March 2013, CITES placed Siamese rosewood on its Appendix II, meaning it is legal for CITES signatories to buy and sell the wood, but the species could face extinction unless trade is closely controlled.
Red alert on rosewood
Laos and Cambodia are CITES signatories, but EIA says they have failed to take the steps necessary under CITES to prevent over-exploitation of the species such as making an inventory of the trees or properly controlling permits to harvest the trees.
The EIA report “Red Alert: How fraudulent Siamese rosewood exports from Laos and Cambodia are undermining CITES protection,” covers the mid-2013 – December 2014 time period, the most recent data available.
The EIA found that Cambodia has either incorrectly or illegitimately issued CITES export permits for most of the 12,000 square meters of Siamese rosewood exported between June 2013 and December 2014.
Laos exported 63,500 square meters of Siamese rosewood in 2013 and 2014, the EIA said. That is more than the entire known remaining wild stock of the trees in Thailand, where only 80,000 to 100,000 Siamese rosewood trees remain in natural stands in the country as of 2011, amounting to about 63,500 square meters of harvestable timber.
Although some rosewood may be legally harvested in Laos from forest conversion projects such as dam building, the infrastructure projects have consistently been used to launder illegally logged timber.
In a further threat to stocks of rosewood, Laotian villagers allege that the state-owned electricity provider Electricite du Laos routinely demands illegally logged Siamese rosewood as payment for hooking up villagers to the national grid.
In March 2014, a rosewood trader in China offered to sell EIA undercover investigators numerous export permits issued by Laos’ CITES Management Authority, covering thousands of cubic meters of rosewood logs. The permits could be applied to any wood from anywhere and then exported into China where rosewood is prized for use in copies of traditional furniture.
“All the indicators betray a governance culture where the rule of law is replaced by forms of state-sponsored crime in key ministries which influence the implementation of UN treaties such as CITES,” Wadley said.
In Phnom Penh, Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap rejected the EIA report, saying Cambodia has actively worked to curtail illegal logging by setting up a task force and creating protected zones in forests.
“The government has reduced the duration of economic land concession from 90 years to 50 years,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
RFA was unable to reach the Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, the agency directly responsible for implementing CITES commitments.
The Lao government, which has unveiled a new package of logging and timber export bans, had no immediate comment on Friday’s report.
Additional reporting and translation by San Sel and Yanny Hin for RFA's Khmer Service.