The spectre of climate change has spurred increasing numbers of people to seek a more ecologically-friendly way of life. Various governments and NGOs around the world have played their part, by providing data and by implementing ‘greener’ policies. Most have made long-term commitments to environmental goals that aim to reduce pollution and increase sustainability in an attempt to avoid climate catastrophe, including legislation specifically directed at protecting trees.
It has long been recognised that our rainforests are the lungs of the world. The more research that is undertaken, the greater the realisation that trees are essential to the survival of our planet.
Protecting the trees
In spite of this, even as hundreds of countries spend vast amounts of money to protect them, our forests and woodland areas are under threat. Corrupt regimes and businesses, inept government departments, and general apathy towards the situation are all contributing to the loss of millions of trees every year – including endangered species.
One of the main problems is illegal logging, which is notoriously difficult to police effectively. To add to the confusion, data is often incomplete or is disputed; government figures are generally at odds with those provided by NGOs.
None of this helps the situation, adding to the risk posed to endangered wood. The listing of any species as ‘endangered’ has presented a paradox; rare wood is worth more, and the rewards from illegal logging are worth the risk. Endangered wood is also sold legally in some countries, such as Brazil, but is managed ineffectively.
CITES and IUCN
In an effort to limit the impact on endangered species of all kinds, these two NGOs were established, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in 1948, and CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) in 1973. Both produce lists of species that are under threat, in the hope that action will be taken to preserve them. The reality, however, is that money generally wins over common sense.
For example, over the last decade or so, Hongmu (redwood) furniture has become extremely fashionable in China. Hongmu is a term reserved for good quality redwood and rosewood that is used to make high-end furniture. Having all but exhausted supplies in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, Chinese merchants have been tapping into the vast Padauk and Tamalan wood supplies (as well as exploiting legal loopholes to export it from Africa). In that time, an estimated $5.7 billion of illegal wood has been smuggled across the Chinese border. The market for legally obtained wood, however, was worth around $240 million in the first quarter of 2014 alone, and trade has increased significantly since then.
Another NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has been urging China to liaise with CITES for some time to have Burma Padauk added to the list of endangered wood. Officials admit, however, that this may have little impact, as the market is too valuable. Policy and law are easy to establish in theory, but enacting and enforcing them is a different matter. The EIA projects that ‘commercial extinction’ of Padauk wood within the next few years is inevitable.
Another species among the many that appear on both the CITES and IUCN lists of endangered wood is zitan mentioned in this article by Generational Housing Specialist. Once again, this is frequently logged illegally and exported to China, simply because of high demand. Over the past 60 years, it has declined by 50%, which has only served to boost its desirability and therefore its value.
Because of the huge amounts of money involved, organised crime and violence have become a serious problem, with ‘wood mafia’ groups forming. NGOs risk their lives when confronting these gangs, and governments struggle to commit the resources to tackle the problem. Both Burma/Myanmar and China have apprehended a token number of illegal loggers, but this barely scratches the surface.
A grim future for the trees
Unless a strict, common policy of stringent measures to protect endangered wood across all countries is established and enforced with harsh punishment for those who contravene the law, then we are in real danger of seeing the extinction of these species within our lifetime. This would be a tragic loss in terms of biodiversity as well as accelerating climate change, which is something most people are trying to avoid. These types of wood are generally sustainable and used in furniture but we need a wider control of woods like ones mentioned above.