Intricately carved, meticulously designed, and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars: this is “hongmu,” or Chinese luxury furniture reflecting the elite styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties. But while the red-colored furniture may be aesthetically beautiful, it comes with a blood price. The hongmu craze—which is booming among China’s newly wealthy—is linked to murder, drugs, and the near extinction of a number of species, including Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis), in a new report by the Environmental Investigative Agency (EIA).
“The soaring value of Siamese rosewood has spurred a dramatic rise in illegal logging in an international criminal trade increasingly characterized by obscene profits, violence, fatal shootings and widespread corruption at every level,” said Faith Doherty, an EIA Forest Campaign Team Leader.
Siamese rosewood is not found in China, but the nearby Mekong region, including Cambodia, Lao, Thailand, and Vietnam. While currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, the listing hasn’t been updated for 16 years. During that time the tree has been stripped to near extinction across the region for hongmu furniture, according to the report.
Forest rangers in Thailand protecting rosewood. Several Thai rangers have died in the line of duty during firefights with illegal loggers. Photo by: EIA.
“Siamese rosewood has become so rare and valuable that the practice of logging it is now more akin to wildlife poaching,” reads the report. “The majority of the timber that finds its way to the markets of China is sought by teams of skilled men from rural villages who will spend weeks at a time in remote forests tracking down the last stands.”
This underground trade has led to murder and explosions of violence, especially on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Here, Cambodian nationals sneak across the border to extract Siam rosewood, frequently leading to firefights with rangers tasked in protected the vanishing species.
Logging for hongmu woods has expanded to Laos and Myanmar in recent years. Chart courtesy of the EIA.
“The tools of the trade are chainsaws, guns and even rocket-propelled grenade launchers…” reads the report. “Since 2009, dozens of forest rangers have been killed on Thailand’s rosewood frontline. Fatalities among loggers are even higher, with 45 Cambodians reportedly shot dead by Thai forces in 2012 alone.”
Illegal loggers are often paid in a methamphetamine known as yaba, which was originally designed for horses.
Rising concern for Siamese rosewood led the species to be listed on Appendix II on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) last year, which requires strict regulation for international trade. Since logging of Siamese rosewood is illegal in every country, this effectively bans any trade. Still, the report finds that corruption and bribery means Siamese rosewood is still targeted.
But Simaese rosewood isn’t the only species used in hongmu furniture, though it remains among the most highly-sought. Hongmu identifies 33 official species, 21 of which are found in Asia, seven from the Americas, and five in Africa.
“Many of the populations of these species are being methodically exhausted in order of meet demand from China’s wealthy elite…Surging demand in China, especially since 2009, has progressively led to Hongmu species being stripped from the Mekong region, India, Madagascar, Central America and Africa,” notes the report.
Hongmu table. Photo by: EIA.
Given the scarcity, traders are increasingly switching to alternatives to Siam rosewood, including Burmese rosewood (Dalbergia bariensis), which is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List but also has not been updated since the late 1990s.
The EIA says China must enact laws that make it a crime to import illegally logged timber from abroad. Such laws have recently been enacted in the U.S., the EU, and Australia, helping to curb illegally logged wood from these countries.
China should also “reform the Hongmu industry to ensure it stops stimulating demand for endangered species, and trading in illicit timber,” says the report.
The EIA also notes that government auctions of seized Siamese rosewood must be halted in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, as such auctions only fuel demand.
Rosewood logs from trees likely several hundred years old. Photo by: EIA.
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