Going undercover to expose China’s billion-dollar illegal timber trade

China has been accused of fostering a billion-dollar trade in illegal wood. chinadialogue talks to Julian Newman, from the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Read our report: China’s hypocrisy on illegal wood and deforestation

chinadialogue: When did the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) start its research on illegal logging and the timber trade?

Julian Newman: This investigation of EIA’s began in 1999. At that time, illegal logging was starting to become rife throughout the acres of tall trees in the national parks in countries surrounding Indonesia. We decided to take action by investigating the logging companies. 
Since there was logging going on, we knew there definitely had to be demand as well. After we’d completed our investigation of the logging companies, we wanted to know where this timber was heading. So we started to follow the flow of timber to investigate the end market. In so doing we discovered China to be a major purchaser.

In 2004, we went to China for the first time. In order to make contact with timber traders we posed as buyers and got in touch via the people in charge in Hong Kong. The trader took us to Zhejiang’s timber shipment point where we saw the "goods" for ourselves. There were only two of us at that stage, but it led to a whole series of further investigations. 
The illegal logging in Indonesia’s national parks was later curbed. This gave us great impetus with our continuing investigations. 

CD: How did you carry out your investigation and what was your most dangerous experience? 

JN: Because we wanted to get hold of visible evidence, we needed to go to the actual location of the logging or trading and see the timber for ourselves. To do this we had to pose as buyers or tourists. This was a real help in our obtaining firsthand information. Most of the time we pretended to be buyers and negotiated with businessmen, getting information about timber sources straight from the horse’s mouth.

My most dangerous experience was in 1999. We had to secretly enter Indonesia’s forests to investigate the logging there. We floated down a stream running through the forest in a small boat, using the camera we’d brought with us to gather evidence. Because it took a long time, our mobile phones ran out of battery and we had no way of getting in contact with the outside world. Later we encountered an illegal logger armed with a gun and a member of our investigation team was abducted. The situation was only resolved when the government stepped in to help. 

CD: You must have a large number of memorable stories from the course of your investigation?

JN: There have been many moving events. For example, half an hour’s drive from Zhejiang’s timber port we came across a shocking scene – both sides of the road piled high with wood. We also felt pity and concern for the villagers living on the edges of the depleted forests, who were being affected by the logging. Their lives were probably about to undergo huge changes.

Another story. Indonesia’s Merbau wood is extremely rare and precious. There is a village close to the Merbau forest where the villagers really want to curb the illegal felling, but a military officer there was using armed force to push on with the logging and a number of companies had faked documents to ensure the trade of this wood. The villagers were powerless.
 We spent a whole year going to places like Jakarta, Singapore and Shanghai, trying to make contact with traders and investors, and posed as passengers in order to investigate the situation of Zhangjiagang from the sea. We built up connections with a trader and took him to Zhangjiagang. There we saw a huge amount of Merbau wood, much of it from Indonesia. Because Indonesia had banned the export of this rare wood, it was suspected to be illegal.

After this we organised a press conference in Jakarta and announced the results of our investigation. Indonesia’s newly appointed prime minister was extremely concerned about this and dispatched troops of more than a thousand soldiers to put a stop to this logging. Afterwards we heard from the villagers that the logging had indeed stopped.

CD: In the course of your investigation did you have direct contact with any Chinese government officials?

JN: In Kunming, Yunnan, we dealt with government officials by pretending to be businessmen, in order to understand their attitude towards the illegal timber entering the country from Vietnam and Burma. Most of them were not very concerned. Illegal logging is not a problem that China suffers from alone, Vietnam imports a huge amount from Laos, but many logging companies come from China. The reason we’ve done a special investigation of China is because China plays a big part in the process which drives illegal logging. China is the biggest importer and user of timber in the world, and the industry is still growing. China believes all the timber that goes through its customs is legitimate. This provides an incentive for illegal logging in other countries.

CD: From what you have seen during this investigation, what would you say about forestry protection within China?

JN: In 2000, China initiated a natural forest protection programme which banned logging and implemented mass planting. Because of this, forest cover increased at a dramatic rate. We passed on information about Indonesia and Mozambique to China, hoping that China might give these countries a little leeway. We also plan to transmit information about China’s forestry protection and recovery programme to places like Mozambique, hoping they will be able to learn from China’s methods. 

Forestry protection is not down to one organisation or department. It isn’t even a problem one country can solve on its own. It requires cooperation between every country. A country needs to set up regulations for its logging and trade systems. Because China’s timber trade is fuelled by a massive demand for wooden products, it also requires consumers to change their purchase behaviour and their lifestyle habits. 

CD: What was the most unexpected thing you encountered during your investigation? 

During their talks with us, a few Chinese businessmen spoke quite candidly about their special relationships with officials from other countries – they even seemed proud of this. Because of this they could obtain “special rights” for logging. We went to verify the names of these officials, to confirm if they had actually had access to these professed special channels. I found their boastful manners completely unexpected.