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Illegal Timber Trading Alleged

May 09, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Two environmental groups charged Thursday that brokers in Singapore and Malaysia are illegally buying the logs of a threatened Indonesian tree species and selling the wood as legal timber around the world, including in the United States.

In an undercover investigation using hidden cameras, the London-based Environmental Investigative Agency and Jakarta-based Telapak said they found that illegal trading in rare ramin wood is making tens of millions of dollars for middlemen who use deceit and false documents to export the timber.

The two groups called for a worldwide boycott of ramin, a hardwood that is popular for use in picture frames, furniture, window blinds, pool cues and tool handles.

"Our evidence shows that Malaysia and Singapore are cynically dealing in ramin stolen from Indonesia and laundering it onto the international market," said Hapsoro, the director of Telapak, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name. "We urge all timber firms and consumers not to touch ramin, as there is a high chance the timber is dirty."

Representatives of the Malaysian and Singaporean governments said they could not comment until they could examine the charges.

Illegal logging is rampant in Indonesia, even in national parks. By some estimates, 80% of the lumber harvested in Indonesia comes from illegal sources. Officials acknowledge that within five to seven years the rainforests that once covered the country will be gone.

The government's attempts to halt logging have been weak and halfhearted in part because many corrupt government officials profit from the illegal trade. In 2001, Indonesia banned the export of raw logs, but the rule is widely ignored.

The same year, Indonesia listed ramin as a threatened species at the urging of environmental groups, giving the tree international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

A blond hardwood that grows only in Indonesia and Malaysia, ramin is highly valued for its clear, straight grain. Illegal loggers in Indonesian Borneo are paid as little as $2.20 for a cubic meter of ramin that can fetch a price of $1,000 on the international market, said Faith Doherty, a senior investigator with the Environmental Investigative Agency.

Numerous ships have been caught in Indonesian waters with ramin logs headed for Singapore. During a 16-month period after ramin was listed as a protected species, Singapore reported that it had exported 19,000 cubic meters of the wood -- but reported that it had imported only 6,000, the environmentalists said.

Ramin timber worth $3 million that was shipped from Singapore without proper permits was intercepted in the United States from September 2001 to July 2002.

Under pressure from environmentalists, Malaysia banned importing logs from Indonesia nearly a year ago but the investigators said they found that large quantities of logs still arrive daily at Malaysian ports. The environmentalists said they observed 32 Indonesian ships loaded with illegal logs reaching the Malaysian port of Muar in a one-hour period last month. To unload the timber, including ramin, the vessels had to pass police and customs officials.

The investigators also said they secretly videotaped illegally harvested ramin logs from Indonesia being unloaded at the Malaysian port of Batu Pahat. Posing as timber buyers, the environmental investigators said they met last month with a factory owner in Singapore.

The factory owner told them that he made "illegal payments" to obtain permits describing the wood as legal, they said. The owner also said he imports five times the amount of ramin shown on the documents and then exports it to China under a false species name.

The investigators said the owner introduced them to a business friend he identified as a timber smuggler. "Drug smuggling is no good," the man said, "but timber smuggling is OK."

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