Don’t blame the Chinese


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It is almost hard to believe how fast Chinese imports of forestry products have been growing over the last decade. They rose from $6 billion in 1996 to $16 billion in 2005, and are expected to double again by 2015. That has conjured up images of the global environment collapsing under the weight of a billion and a half Chinese suddenly joining the middle class. Many, including myself, have used the image of China being like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the world’s forests.

This same logic has led people to blame the Chinese for the current boom of illegal logging in places like Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and the Russian far east, which ship their wood to China. Conservationists have worried that their efforts to ensure that forestry products entering Europe and North America are produced legally and sustainably will be doomed to failure as long as the Chinese have no qualms about buying the more unsavory stuff.

However, a recent report by Forest Trends, CIFOR, and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy shows things are not that simple. In fact, Chinese forest product exports have been climbing as fast as their imports, jumping from $4 billion in 1997 to $17 billion in 2005. What’s more, the volume of wood going into the exports equals roughly 70% of the volume imported, which means almost as much wood goes out as comes in. So rather than using the resources itself, China mostly just processes them and ships them out again. It is more like a giant assembly line than a vacuum cleaner.

The main importers of Chinese furniture, plywood, and other forestry products are the United States and Europe. The US alone accounts for 35% of China’s wood-based exports and US imports of Chinese forestry products rose an astonishing 1000% between 1997 and 2005. Europe is the second largest importer and their imports increased almost 800% in the same period.

That means the Americans and the European are the ones using most of the wood. It also means they are well positioned to take steps against illegal and unsustainable logging if they work with their Chinese partners to make sure the furniture or plywood they import from China isn’t made of wood from dubious sources.

Recent European procurement policies that seek to ensure governments don’t purchase wood from illegal sources can help. Still a lot more needs to be done. Rather than simply blaming the Chinese, the countries that consume all these products need to take action.


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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper in pdf format you can write Kerstin Canby at:

To send comments or queries to the authors write Andy White at:

The full reference of the article is: A. White, X. Sun, K. Canby, J. Xu, C. Barr, E. Katsigris, G. Bull, C. Cossalter, and S. Nilsson. 2006. China and the Global Market for Forest Products: Trends, Implications, and Steps to Transform the Trade to Benefit Forests and Livelihoods, Washington D.C.: Forest Trends, Center for International Forestry Research, and Chinese Center for Agricultural Policy.