In a report released in Beijing on Thursday, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency said there had been an alarming escalation of timber flowing into China over the last three years.
A torrent of illegal timber worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year is pouring across Myanmar’s border into China as loggers reach deeper into the country’s forests in search of profits, activists have claimed.
“Within Myanmar we are being told that Chinese operations are going deeper into the country as they seek valuable hardwoods, mainly teak and rosewood,” said Faith Doherty, one of the report’s authors.
“New investments in infrastructure in the country, including dams, ensure roads are built, leading timber bosses from China straight to Myanmar’s valuable forests. If this continues, the impacts on both the communities that rely on the forest and the country’s forest itself will be irreversible.”
Myanmar’s forests, among the most biodiversity-rich on earth, have been a target for loggers, often working illegally, since the late 1980s.
Deforestation spiked during the 1990s as huge amounts of timber were transported across the border into China’s Yunnan province, but Beijing was forced to crack down in 2006 after environmental groups exposed the extent of the destruction.
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The devastation slowed after China temporarily suspended imports and banned its citizens from crossing into Myanmar to cut down trees, activists said.
However, as Myanmar began its political opening to the world in 2012 there were fears that this would open the floodgates for a new wave of deforestation.
Those fears now appear to be coming true, with the quantity of illegal timber flowing into China now coming close to the peak level hit a decade ago, according to the EIA report. “The bad days are back,” said Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner.
Wadley said 978,000 cubic metres of logs had been imported into China from Myanmar last year, the bulk of it illegal under Myanmar’s laws. While the US, EU and Australia were all complicit in the illegal logging trade, China bore the overwhelming responsibility for the plundering of rosewood from Myanmar, he said.
Wadley said those trees were being cut down on behalf of “very rich people in China consuming luxury products as a status symbol”. “This is not sustainable or moral. China needs to act,” he said
Two of the species most targeted by loggers – padauk and a rosewood called tamalan – could be “completely logged out” in 10 years, he warned. “It is a completely unsustainable trade.”
EIA investigators travelled from China’s southern factory boomtowns – where the logs are processed – to the remote jungles of Myanmar, uncovering a sprawling criminal network that allows the illicit industry to prosper.
Julian Newman, EIA’s campaigns director, said that in some areas of Myanmar’s Kachin state, Chinese businesspeople used gold bars to purchase the right to denude entire mountains of trees. “You go in there and you cut as much as you can, as fast as you can and you take everything and that is highly destructive,” he said. “The scale of it is quite alarming.”
Investigators posing as buyers visited sawmills and wood factories in China’s Guangdong province. “We don’t care what channels the materials come from, so long as they bring it over to China and declare the taxes,” one factory owner said.
The campaigners also exposed the perilous conditions facing impoverished Chinese loggers sent to work in Myanmar. One Chinese driver working in Myanmar said he had been with a group of loggers from China’s Hunan province when they strayed into a minefield and were “blown up into pieces”.
The plight of these loggers made headlines this year when Myanmar sentenced 153 Chinese nationals to life imprisonment for illegal logging. Chinese state media attacked the treatment of the loggers and claimed the international media were trying to “foment discord between China and Myanmar [by] claiming China is looting local resources”. The jailed loggers were released in July after receiving a presidential pardon.
Doherty said China, which is the world’s biggest importer of illegal timber, had until recently been in “complete and utter denial” about its role in the destruction of Myanmar’s forests. That was now slowly changing, with the State Forestry Administration drawing up voluntary guidelines for Chinese forestry companies operating overseas, but huge resistance remained, she said.