China world's biggest importer of illegal timber, activists say

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China's role as a worldwide wood-processing hub and surging domestic demand for furniture made of rare woods have led to it becoming the world's biggest importer of illegal timber, an environmental group said.

The government has "failed to regulate China's rising imports of illegal timber," the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency said in a report released today. State- owned firms buy logs from countries where such exports are banned, including Indonesia and Mozambique, and are "directly involved" in illegal logging in Myanmar, it said.

"The astounding economic growth of China attracts a host of superlatives," the group said. "Its position as the largest importer of stolen wood is one of the most undesirable ones."

At least 10 percent of China's imports of wood in 2011 -- 18.5 million cubic meters, or enough to fill 900,000 standard shipping containers -- was illegal, the group said. While China has recorded "commendable efforts at reforestation" at home, domestic supply only meets about half of demand. China's appetite is fueling illegal logging in countries including Madagascar and across southeast Asia, it said.

Asked about the timber trade at a regular briefing today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, "We oppose illegal timber cutting and insist on sustainable forest management."

In one case documented by the group, prohibited merbau wood logs from Indonesia were disguised as earthquake reconstruction materials and bridge components, according to the report. In another case, part of a 23-container shipment of merbau logs was found headed for a state-owned enterprise, it said.

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