in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam

Demand for luxury furniture in China pushes Siamese rosewood to the brink of extinction

“Hongmu” is a style of intricately carved Chinese wooden furniture and artworks. It’s found on sale in glitzy shopping malls across mainland China. But behind the timber used to create this art form is a violent crime wave.

A new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency documents how Siamese rosewood from the Mekong region is nearing extinction as the demand in China for luxury reproduction wooden furniture soars. As the timber becomes scarcer, the price is increasing. Investors are pouring money into the business, making the problem even worse.

The report, which is based on EIA’s investigations in the Mekong region and China in recent years, starts with this description of the problem:

“This is a tragic true story of high culture, peerless art forms, and a rich historical identity being warped by greed and obsession, which consumes its very foundations to extinction and sparks a violent crime wave across Asian forests.”

The report, “Routes of Extinction: The corruption and violence destroying Siamese rosewood in the Mekong”, is available here. It is also available in Chinese, here.

EIA investigators went undercover posing as timber buyers along the main trade routes in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China, exposing timber traders and corrupt government officials.

In a five-star hotel in Singapore, a timber trader laughs as he explains to undercover EIA investigators how he bribes Lao government officials to sell timber stocks seized from illegal loggers.

In Pakse, Laos, the military seizes illegal precious timber. The niece of the head of the local military command sells the timber. The paperwork from the sale will launder five times more illegal wood.

In Dong Ky, near Hanoi, Vietnam, EIA investigators speak to a reported triad leader who describes timber smuggling routes across the land border to China. Border officials are on his pay roll. While he talks he stacks cash into a bag.

In Shenzhen, China, a logistics broker provides official Lao government export permits for wood stolen from Laos. The permits (which he has gained illegally) legitimise the import of wood to mainland China from Hong Kong, in breach of a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species decision aimed at preventing the extinction of Siamese rosewood.

In Thailand, another Cambodian logger is shot and killed by forest rangers. A week later, a Thai forest ranger patrolling a national park is killed by armed loggers. Meanwhile, a commodities trader wants US$50 million for hundreds of containers of seized timber held in Bangkok ports.

EIA Forest Campaign Team Leader Faith Doherty says,

“The soaring value of Siamese rosewood has spurred a dramatic rise in illegal logging in an international criminal trade increasingly characterised by obscene profits, violence, fatal shootings and widespread corruption at every level.

“As outlined in the report, the consequences for Thailand – both environmental and social – are very serious. Unless swift and decisive action is taken to stem this bloody trade, we could well be looking at the extinction of Siamese rosewood in a matter of a very few years.”

EIA has produced a video, also titled “Routes of Extinction”:

The video features background music composed by William Basinski: “Vivian and Ondine”. Basinski is an experimental musician best know for his work “The Disintegration Loops“.

During the 1980s Basinski created a series of tape loops taken from an easy listening radio station. In the summer of 2001, Basinksi decided to digitise the tape loops to preserve them. He set up the first loop on his digital recorder in his studio and left it running while he went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee.

In an interview with he described what he found when he returned:

“after a few minutes I started realising that the tape loop itself, as it was going around on the deck, was starting to … disintegrate.”

As the tape passed the tape head, the iron oxide that held the magnetic recording was coming away from the tape. Each time the tape passed the tape head, the music decayed a little more.

It is an extraordinary piece of music, lasting just over one hour. It consists of only a few seconds of music repeated over and over and over again. But each time, the sound has decayed slightly more until it eventually fades to nothing.

Basinski was living in New York at the time. He finished the Disintegration Loops shortly before the 9/11 attacks. He filmed the last hour’s daylight over the Brooklyn skyline from a neighbours roof. He produced a video of the fading light with Disintegration Loops 1.1 as the soundtrack.

Basinski’s music is strongly linked to New York. Basinski describes it as an elegy to the victims of 9/11. But the gradual disintegration and slow fading away of the Disintegration Loops provides a perfect metaphor of what is currently happening in the forests of the Mekong Region.

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  1. Conflict associated with China’s imports of rosewood is also being experienced in much of West Africa – in Guinea-Bissau it is linked to national elections and supplies from The Gambia may be linked to secessionism in Casamance (Senegal). Nigeria has recently become the main source of China’s imports from West Africa (perhaps as an entrepot). The volumes being supplied to China from Central America are now much smaller but, as elsewhere, seem to have been associated with silence from China’s diplomats and with violence.