A hardwood importer’s story

A story called 东阳商人境外上演“疯狂的木头”  (Dongyang merchants perform in “crazy wood” show abroad), from 金华新闻网 (17 November 2010) has been circulated on China-Wire. I thought it contained a number of interesting details.

The article profiles a furniture manufacturer in Dongyang, near Shanghai, who has invested in a 50-year lease of 150 thousand mu (10,000 ha) of forest in Cambodia via a Hong Kong intermediary, for logging and a subsequent rubber plantation. (The intermediary part is interesting: in my research in Cambodia, I too encountered Hong Kong businessmen, often of Cambodian Chinese origin, acting as brokers/gatekeepers for Chinese investors.)

Presumably, the concession was granted for rubber, but the manufacturer considers the rubber plantation a liability and is only interested in the tropical hardwood that, according to an estimate commissioned from a Shanghai expert, could make up 3% of all timber. Since 2002, prices of certain kinds of hardwood in China have risen 400 times.

The article explains that Dongyang furniture makers used to import hardwood from Vietnam, but the supply dried up both because of exhaustion of resources and a ban by Vietnamese authorities. Importers then shifted to Cambodia, but that supply too has been exhausted. Now 90% of hardwood comes from Africa, but prices are much higher both because of local government restrictions passed under environmentalist pressure and because of rising local wages. (Interesting detail!)

(As an aside, there is a complete ban on hardwood export in Madagascar as of this year, an interesting comment on the relationship between the new government, which came to power after a coup partly driven by opposition to commercial land concessions, and environmental organisations such as the WWF, which also have land concessions in Madagascar, but for conservation purposes.)

Because of these price increases, more manufacturers in Dongyang have sought to go directly to the source instead of buying timber from exporters. One of them secured a 70-year logging concession in Cambodia back in 1997. The one portrayed in the article is also planning to set up a processing factory in Cambodia since costs are lower than in Dongyang.

In sum, the article demonstrates how the desires of Chinese consumers and  environmental campaigners produce complex changes on two continents: trees disappear, wages go up, jobs are created, and plantations that perhaps no one really wants spread.

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