Thailand needs support to end the rosewood robbery

EIA presents at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Environmental Crime in Asia (c) EIA

We don’t have offices in Southeast Asia, but it’s an area we’ve worked in for many years and the home base for many of our partners.

Being in Bangkok this week for the annual INTERPOL meeting on environmental crime, we took the opportunity to host a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, highlighting the many forms environmental crime takes in the region and then turning the spotlight on the hot issue of rosewood.

Man transporting rosewood & a saw (c) EIA

The Thai press is awash with news stories about illegal logging and seizures of smuggled rosewood headed for export. Rosewood is a luxurious hardwood, prized for its colour and durability, and used for furniture, decorative pieces and veneer.

The main forests are in the north-east of Thailand. The country has a national logging ban, but rosewood is nevertheless under heavy pressure from logging gangs

The rosewood story shows, once again, that illegal logging isn’t ‘just’ about trees being cut down. This trade has violence and corruption running right through it. Armed rangers attempt to protect the forests but come up against well-organised, and well-protected, gangs. Last year alone, a reported 14 Cambodian loggers were shot dead. When a tree is felled, corruption helps the timber travel along the trade chain and onto the international market.

The result is that rosewood is getting increasingly rare, so the price is driven up. For those involved in the illegal trade, that means trafficking even small amounts is lucrative. The Thai authorities told us that once it crosses the border, the price increases fourfold.

Rosewood concealed in a water tanker (c) EIA

The demand for Rosewood is being driven by China, and in past investigations in China we witnessed the astonishing sky-high price that’s been put on this wood, where a rosewood bed was retailing at a cool one million dollars. One Chinese trader complained “the species is finished” and there was “only about five years left in the trade”. Other commentators see the end coming far sooner.

There’s a rosewood emergency, so what can the Thai Government do? Our Rosewood Robbery briefing shows that immediately, and by itself, it can list rosewood on CITES Appendix III, with a zero quota. This would send a strong statement, and take one significant step closer towards both better protection and supporting Thailand’s logging ban.

Because rosewood grows in other parts of Southeast Asia, Thailand needs support from neighbouring countries to help regulate even further, with a listing on Appendix II of CITES. This could be done in time for when Thailand hosts the Conference of Parties to CITES early next year.

Thai authorities present their case against illegal logging of rosewood in Thailand’s north-east forests, FCCT Bangkok (c) EIA

We’ve been closely engaging with the Government here, and both the police (Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Suppression Division) and the Department of National Parks were on our panel on Wednesday night to give their views. We have been asking for more transparency, and by having the Thai authorities explain what the situation is and how they are coping, we have learned that Thailand is not able to suppress this crime by itself. Thailand needs international support.

During the discussion, the Thai representatives outlined a proposed increase in penalties, port surveillance and reforestation projects. They expressed their willingness to list on CITES and explained they had been reaching out to other range states – but they shopped short of announcing any decision at this stage.

Let’s hope one comes soon. With memories of the successful CITES listing of ramin, we know this process really can work and we will continue to work with them to achieve the same results.

But action must come quickly and the Mekong states need to cooperate. Supporting each other and acting now is better than death in the forest and the end of one more species.