for National Geographic News
A dense, fine-grained wood hacked from Indonesian forests is the stuff of a real-life tale about smugglers, crime bosses, corrupt politicians, and wildlife teetering on the brink of extinction, according to an undercover investigation by an environmental activist group.
Ramin (Gonystylus spp.), the wood in question, is used to make everything from baby cribs and pool cues to picture frames and decorative trim found in homes and bars around the world.
The trees grow only in Malaysian and Indonesian swamp lands and don't take to plantations. Much of what is left today is found in protected areas such as national parks.
Fetching upwards of U.S. $1,000 per cubic meter in international markets, the wood lures loggers into protected areas, and once there they cut down everything else of value, according to Sascha von Bismarck of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in Washington, D.C. Based in Washington and London, the EIA is an independent international campaigning organization committed to investigating and exposing "environmental crime."
Ramin habitat is home to orangutans, a great ape that recent reports suggest could be extinct within two decades owing to the rapid pace of illegal logging.
"During the 1990s, we lost one third of the orangutans and the obvious extrapolation is that two more decades like that and they are gone," said Carel van Schaik, a biological anthropologist and orangutan expert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
To help stem illegal logging, in 2001 Indonesia banned the cutting and export of ramin, meaning that Malaysia is now the only legitimate source of the wood.
To help enforce its ban, Indonesia placed ramin on the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Through the convention, governments agree to restrict and fully document the trade in ramin, ensuring that no illegal wood from Indonesia enters the global marketplace.
According to the undercover sleuthing of EIA and its Indonesian partner Telapak, thousands of tons of illegally logged Indonesian ramin is laundered through Malaysia each year and sold to unsuspecting consumers around the world.
"This investigation has called into question the entire remaining legal source of ramin and therefore calls into question the ramin trade, period," said von Bismarck.
EIA released its report, Profit from Plundering: How Malaysia Smuggles Endangered Wood, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES