China and You: Partners in Deforestation

Environmentalists are shoveling cat poo out the sandbox while the tiger rears behind them. I am talking about China. The world’s most polluted places are in China. China is the leading producer of sulfur dioxide and black shoot and will soon surpass even the U.S. (with a much larger economy) in CO2. But let me cut to what most interests me.

The Chinese are the biggest buyers of illegally harvested timber, deforesting large parts of Russia, Southeast Asia, Africa and South America and it will get worse.

Good forestry practices can guarantee sustainable harvests, but this takes planning and raises costs. It is easier to bribe officials and rip apart natural environments. Some of these may not recover for generations, if at all. Deforestation has sometimes resulted in permanent changes in environments. Much of the semi-desert areas around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East were forest covered until humans cut the trees and goats finished off the forests. Today, with the soils that supported the trees long washed away they will not return.

(BTW - it would be possible to reforest large parts of places like coastal and mountain Tunisia or Morocco. It would be a great heroic generational project. A man can dream!)

Some ecosystems are more robust than others and it is not true that all tropical forests can be easily destroyed by logging. There are some places where forestry can be practiced sustainably - but not everywhere. That is why it this is where good sense and sound regulation is required. Many developing countries have respectable laws concerning forestry, but they are often not respected. Local officials are cheap to bribe and often have very flexible backbones.

Western companies and consumers are complicit in all this. Even very responsible firms such as Ikea buy Chinese furniture w/o properly knowing where the wood comes from.

There are several certification programs for timber. These help ensure that the wood products you consume come from forests managed in a sustainable way. There is some competition among them. Partisans of one system sometimes trash the others, but this is shortsighted. You can look at the matrix to see the comparisons. One thing for sure is that any one of them is better than the illegal logging supplying wood to China today, the wood that you may be sitting on right now.

It is time to be a little more circumspect in our buying habits. I do not insist that you chase down the provenance of every piece of wood you use, but do at least ask where that tropical wood for your hardwood floor came from. Consumers have a great deal of power. Places like Home Depot, Loews and even Wal-Mart are responding. You have to be willing to ask questions, willing to pay more and perhaps willing to pass on that beautiful hardwood floor that matches your eyes.

You can still have wood. Wood is often the most environmentally friendly material available. But a lot depends on where that wood comes from and how it was harvested. Our forests can produce wood, clean water and homes for wildlife forever, but only if we we treat them right.

Posted by Jack at April 1, 2007 9:46 PM
Comment #214637


I figured you’d jump on this topic, I though of you reading it this morning, since you are the only forester I know.:)

Posted by: gergle at April 1, 2007 10:10 PM
Comment #214646

But Jack its the free market at work. Not quite so free when they come for you is it?

Posted by: j2t2 at April 2, 2007 12:21 AM
Comment #214647

How is Jack not still utilizing the free market exactly, j2t2?

It is time to be a little more circumspect in our buying habits. I do not insist that you chase down the provenance of every piece of wood you use, but do at least ask where that tropical wood for your hardwood floor came from. Consumers have a great deal of power. Places like Home Depot, Loews and even Wal-Mart are responding. You have to be willing to ask questions, willing to pay more and perhaps willing to pass on that beautiful hardwood floor that matches your eyes.

Sounds like a good use of the free market system to me, no governmental interaction, no police force monitoring another behavior of our citizens, etc. Are you suggesting a different way?

Posted by: Rhinehold at April 2, 2007 12:31 AM
Comment #214652

Rhinehold, I agree he is using the free market, or at least whats left of it. I think the problem is nothing positive is happening to prevent the deforestation he speaks of. I can ask questions if Im at Lowes, I can go to Home Depot and be told the same answer, its cheaper to import it from China.
I disagree that the consumer has a great deal of power on where these chains get their material from. Its a free market myth.
As far as a better answer, until such time that a majority in this country wises up to the free market myths and the libertarian line of crap regarding the individuals right to deforest the world in the name of liberty, no I dont have a better answer.

Posted by: j2t2 at April 2, 2007 1:10 AM
Comment #214653

Jack, you are right to condemn China’s record of deforestation. Their government is well aware of the price it has cost their nation already with the flooding of Yangtze and other rivers exacerbated intensely by the deforestation.

The Chinese government is trying to cope with this, but, tree police are in short supply. Their government is also a bit on the fence with the West demanding that free up enterprise, while good environmental stewardship requires they regulate some of it. The U.S. insists that China not increase its export costs of raw materials (which regulating deforestation would do), while insisting China remove subsidies for finished goods exports.

China is acutely aware of the problem both domestically and in terms of international markets. Their first concern however, seems to me, is to halt the deforestation especially on slopes, in order to control flooding of both populated and arable lands for farming.

Not sure how well they are progressing on that agenda, but, given the size of China, a quick fix is not likely in the offing. Of course, the U.S. could help them by raising tariffs on the import of raw lumber as well as finished lumber products. But, that would have to be negotiated if the Chinese are to see such a move as in support of their national need. That of course, would require a different administration. Environment is not on this one’s radar when it comes to international trade, and therefore, this is yet another missed opportunity.

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 2, 2007 1:32 AM
Comment #214656


For once I agree with you a hundred percent. I have my doubts about trusting Wal-Mart though. Aren’t they the same company that placed “Made in America” stickers on all their products? Then it turns out, the stickers were only referring to the packaging their products came in.

Posted by: Cube at April 2, 2007 3:06 AM
Comment #214662


“come for me”. I would have thought that the health of the world’s forest was more than my selfish interest.

The free market requires rules of law, reasonable regulation and the market mechanism. The Chinese are operating neither under the rule of law nor reasonable regulation. As a matter of fact, they are not operating with the market mechanism, since they are making political deals. Much of the timber is literally stolen. If someone comes on your land and takes something and resells it cheaply, that is not the free market at work. Local political leader is Burma or Cambodia sell what they do not own it is not the market.

There is also the problem of lack of property rights. I take care of my forest because I love my woods, but also because it is mine. I can make decisions about it. Most of these tropical forests are held in common, have weak property rights or are owned by the state. A market system, with stronger property rights would go a long way to improve the situation as it has in N. America and Europe. Deforestation is not a problem in places with privately owned forests and strong property rights.


Timber certification is very much a market mechanism. You can choose to buy certified timber and thereby reward good behavior in the woods and punish the bad guys.


China outlawed tree cutting in much of China. What they are doing is plundering the rest of the world. This sort of trade IS subject to international agreements, which they are ignoring.


Always trust but verify. Firms have a duty to obey the rule of law. The problem comes when government (in this case China’s and many developing countries) cannot or will not enforce its own laws. We have a right to demand better from them and we probably should put that into trade agreements.

Posted by: Jack at April 2, 2007 7:49 AM
Comment #214665

Jack, your right the free market falls to peices when it comes to trade agreements. It also doent work when your asking the theives to police themselves. As far as certification Im sure those that can afford to pay more for certifed lumber and understand the issue may do so when convienent for them. The majority of consumers cant and wont, does that mean the free market effectively solves the problem without “gvernment interference”? To bad for those sitting in jails and prisons around the country that we dont apply these same free market principles to our criminal justice system so that we could have liberty for all. Maybe not justice for all but liberty for all.

Posted by: j2t2 at April 2, 2007 9:03 AM
Comment #214668


Rule of law. The free market requires the rule of law. You are right that it really cannot handle illegal situations. It that a surprise that an honest business cannot effectively deal with crooks. When governments fail to enforce laws, society and the market ceases to function well.

That is why you do not have a free market in a place like Russia or China. You have some use of market principles but they lack the totality of free choices because of their weak protection of property rights, heavy handed government interference, corruption and disrespect for the application of the rule of law.

So I am asking for two things. 1- governments enforce simple laws like those for contracts, property rights and theft and 2- consumers in the West be concerned re what they buy and demand higher standards. Of the two, the first one is more useful, but we do not have the ability to force the Chinese (Cambodians, Burmese, Russians, Congolese etc) to follow the rule of law and be less corrupt. So the best we can do is #2.

Posted by: Jack at April 2, 2007 10:41 AM
Comment #214700


I am glad you are a forester, because it humanizes you a bit, takes you away from the hardliners. Your concern about the environment is a good thing and I’ll not criticize you for your attempts to devise a solution.

That said, this situation argues eloquently for legal restraints on trade; specifically, making some harvesting of timber “illegal” to prevent rampant destruction of a common good, the environment. This is much the same as the rationale for all environmental restraints on capitalism. If you would more frequently acknowledge the value of such restraints when a common good is promoted, then the distance between right a left would diminish and the focus would shift away from ideology to solutions.

Again, my hat is off, sir.

Posted by: Mental Wimp at April 2, 2007 4:26 PM
Comment #214708


My point is that it is often ALREADY illegal to harvest as they are doing. Harvest is the wrong word - plunder is better. It violates property rights and rule of law in the countries of origin.

Many countries have wonderful laws. They can only be so good, however, because nobody follows them.

Have you ever visited the countries around the Med? Many of them used to have significant forest cover. Now many areas are deserts of bleached rock. This was the result of ancient forest destruction (and a specific policy later by Arab conquerors in some place in N. Africa). We do not need more desert.

Posted by: Jack at April 2, 2007 5:47 PM
Comment #214903

Jack, you will have to point out to me the photos of the Chinese hordes invading countries and stealing their forests? Must have missed those. China is purchasing trees. Willing nations are and international companies are selling them. What part of this free enterprise do you not approve of for China. We certainly have operated on this same basis for diamonds, plutonium, and dare I say it, Iraqi free flow of oil. Is the feed for the goose not good for the gander?

Posted by: David R. Remer at April 3, 2007 9:41 PM
Comment #214919


The Chinese are notoriously corrupt in their trade practices.

I do not understand why you cut them so much slack. If American firms were doing such things American liberals and environmentalist would be on them thick as flies.

I know that we should be held to higher standards, but that does not mean that we forget the standards for others.

Remember that that the cultural revolution in China killed more people in the shortest period of time than any other evil system in the history of the world. They are about to get the record for deforestation too.

Posted by: Jack at April 3, 2007 10:41 PM
Comment #215280

Funny how the left will never criticize China. Doesn’t matter how much they abuse people or pollute the land. Whatever the issue is they get a free pass. The Republicans are not significantly better at calling China to task. The problem with not buying chinese is trying to find a store that carries anything but made in china.

Posted by: carnak at April 5, 2007 8:53 PM
Comment #216719

Thank you for shining a light on this important topic. Consumers have become used to the cheap prices they pay for furniture and flooring not knowing that it has all been made from illegally harvested wood and imported from China. Only through education can we begin to turn this frightening situation around. Columns like yours are a big help. It will be interesting to see how consumers react to this educational campaign, which includes-by the way- a major push by furniture industry visionaries who have founded and promoted the Sustainable Furniture Council, SFC Hopefully we are going to see a good deal of consumer driven pressure placed on the big furniture companies to join the SFC and start practicing sustainability. What do you think? Is that an example of free markets that might work? Anybody have any suggestions to help the SFC accomplish its mission of raising awareness, promoting sustainable furniture and helping to save the rainforest?

Posted by: Peggy Farabaugh at April 15, 2007 6:54 PM
Post a comment