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Chinese Demand Drives Global Deforestation Crisis

Date: 12-Jun-07
Country: CAMEROON
Author: Tansa Musa

But tracks between the towering tropical hardwood trees open up into car park-sized clearings littered with logs as long as buses.

Forestry officers say the reserve is under attack from unscrupulous commercial loggers who work outside authorised zones and do not respect size limits in their quest for maximum financial returns.

"I lack words to describe what is going on here," says Richard Greine, head of the local forestry post, 350 km (220 miles) north of Cameroon's capital Yaounde.

"Both illegal and authorised exploiters have staged a hold-up on the forest."

From central Africa to the Amazon basin and Indonesia's islands, the world's great forests are being lost at an annual rate of at least 13 million hectares (32 million acres) -- an area the size of Greece or Nicaragua.

The timber business is worth billions of dollars annually, and experts say few industries that size are as murky as the black market in wood.

Evidence of rampant deforestation around the globe points in one direction: booming demand in China, where economic growth is fuelling a timber feeding frenzy.

In just the past decade, China has grown from importing wood products for domestic use to become the world's leading exporter of furniture, plywood and flooring.

Chinese firms might not be chopping down the trees themselves, but their insatiable appetite is driving up prices, spurring loggers to open more tracks like those torn through Ngambe-Tikar and drawing huge global investment to the companies.

COLONIAL RELICS

In Mande village on the fringe of the Cameroon jungle, Pierre, a hunter dressed in tattered shorts and T-shirt, does not know that more than half his country's original forest cover has been cut down in his lifetime.

But he knows the local eco-system has been ravaged.

Once upon a time, wild animals would sometimes stroll right into his compound. "These days you don't see any. They don't fall into our traps anymore. You need to go very far, deep in the forest to see or catch one," he tells Reuters.

As usual, it is the poorest who pay.

In nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, the lure of timber wealth has seen loggers accused of cheating villagers with deals activists say are a "shameful relic of colonial times".

A two-year investigation by Greenpeace accused companies, mostly from Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Singapore and the United States, of illegally acquiring titles to about 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of Congolese rainforest after a 2002 moratorium.

In return for small gifts such as farm tools, bags of salt and cases of beer, the firms won logging rights worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the probe found.

The biggest target of the loggers is Afromosia, or African teak, which can sell for hundreds of dollars a cubic metre.

Locals in one village, Lamoko, Greenpeace says, gave away thousands of hectares for presents worth only about US$20,000.

Depressingly similar accusations mar the logging industry in Brazil, home to most of the Amazon basin -- the planet's largest remaining tropical rainforest.

FOREIGN MERCENARIES

About a fifth of Brazil's Amazon has already been destroyed, and Chinese demand for commodities such as iron ore, bauxite and especially soy, has been a big factor in pushing the country's agricultural frontier further north.

Most illegal logging is done by Brazilians, either poor migrants from the dry northeast or cattle ranchers and soy farmers coming in from the south.

The government has long been criticised for deforestation and has a very public policy of stopping illegal clearing and slowing clearing rates overall. But the frontier area is very remote, and police are underfunded, disorganised and often corrupt.

Spinning the globe further west, the problem is perhaps even more acute in Indonesia.

Without drastic action, the United Nations says, 98 percent of its remaining fore

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