Activists Expose Malaysia Wood-Smuggling Ring

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Van Schaik, the Duke University orangutan expert who is familiar with the rapid pace of illegal logging in Indonesia, said the reports of Malaysian smuggling sound plausible but would require further investigation. "Let's see what the EIA and Telapak evidence says and base [a serious investigation] on that," he said.

Ramin Smuggling

One of the main hubs of the ramin laundering ring in Malaysia, according to EIA and Telapak, is Johor Port on the tip of the Malaysian peninsula within sight of Singapore. A port official is said to have told the undercover investigators that an estimated 160,000 cubic feet (4,500 cubic meters) of Indonesian ramin passes through there each month.

According to the investigators, they were shown how ramin arrives by boatloads from Sumatra each day, is unloaded and stored in a warehouse where it air dries for several weeks, and is then packed into containers for shipment to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China.

The investigators were told by port agents that officials give the wood a Certificate of Origin from the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and that the Malaysian Timber Industry Board, which is responsible for enforcing the ramin CITES listing in Malaysia and has an office near the port, knowingly allows this activity to occur.

"The particular example of Johor Port indicates there may be up to 70,000 cubic meters [2.5 million cubic feet] being laundered through that port each year, all illegal ramin made Malaysian through false paperwork with the knowledge of local authorities," said von Bismarck.

The EIA and Telapak investigation also uncovered laundering of Indonesian ramin through the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the birthplace of the ramin industry. The investigators say the ramin in Sarawak has been over cut and is now supplemented with illegal ramin from Indonesia.

An owner of a mill in Sarawak told the investigators how Malaysian customs authorities are paid to allow Indonesian shipments of ramin to enter the country through one port and given passage up a river to sawmills where CITES authorities are paid off to certify the timber as Malaysian origin.

"The evidence points to significant complicity by Malaysian authorities," said von Bismarck. Based on this evidence, EIA and Telapak are hoping that Indonesian and Malaysian authorities take action to arrest those involved in this illegal activity.

Stopping Illegal Logging

Putting an end to illegal logging is difficult, say environmentalists, because they have few effective mechanisms to control the trade in illegally cut wood.

According to EIA, a coalition of U.S. environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife, Rainforest Action Network, Earthjustice, and Orangutan Foundation International, joined in releasing a statement calling on the U.S. government to raise the issue with Malaysia and impose trade sanctions unless Malaysia takes meaningful action to resolve the problem.

For consumers, von Bismarck said, the best way to help is to not purchase any ramin-based products. "Regardless of where it says it came from, this investigation shows it was likely illegally cut in Indonesia, including in national parks," he said.

Van Schaik said another way to help is to support one of several orangutan conservation initiatives, such as BOS-USA which is trying to protect a million hectares of Indonesian peat swamp habitat and the Orangutan Foundation's patrolling of Tanjung Puting National Park.

"Those are good initiatives by NGOs that are trying to make conservation happen in a situation where conservation does not happen automatically," he said.

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