The rainforests of Central Africa’s Congo Basin are disappearing before our eyes.
New research is suggesting a major cause is demand for furniture in the United States – furniture manufactured from African timbers that in turn are imported from China.
A new study from the University of California examines timber exports from five Central African countries to China between 2001 and 2015.
During that period, China more than doubled its wood imports from the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest, and is now its biggest timber importer.
Trevon Fuller, lead author of the study, has little doubt that U.S. markets are a main driver behind increased pressure on African forests. U.S. consumers have long loved low-cost Chinese flooring, furniture and plywood.
Further, satellite data from Fuller’s team shows that forest loss in Congo Basin nations rose when timber exports increased.
CHINESE THWART TIMBER SAFEGUARDS
While the U.S. is clearly part of the problem in Africa, China is at least as much of a worry.
For example, in 2013, the European Union introduced the E.U. Timber Regulation. It requires ‘due diligence’ from importers to verify that timber being brought into E.U. markets isn’t illegally harvested.
This slowed timber exports from the Congo Basin to the E.U., but China was quick to jump in and exploit the void instead.
And the Chinese worry little about whether timber is illegally harvested or obtained via bribery, according to a wide range of sources.
When Gabon banned log exports in 2010 to encourage local wood-processing while stymieing illegal logging, China responded by quickly leaping into nearby Cameroon.
Just as bad, Chinese loggers want only round logs (raw timber), providing almost no opportunity for value-adding or local employment (via sawmilling or woodworking) by timber-producing countries.
This ensures that China maximizes its profits while local countries stay poor.
China is the biggest force behind a growing illegal trade that is stripping the native forests of many countries. Many developed nations – such as the U.S., Australia, and E.U. – are now enacting laws to ban illegal timber imports.
But those laws do little to influence China’s aggressive behavior, or taming the dark side of the global timber trade.
Ultimately, strong demand from consumer nations for cheap Chinese-manufactured furniture is driving a great deal of deforestation.
When the world wants cheap furniture, China will get it for them, one way or another.