‘More valuable than gold’: Thailand’s fight to save the Siamese Rosewood
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‘More valuable than gold’: Thailand’s fight to save the Siamese Rosewood

Dalbergia cochinchinensis, otherwise known as Thailand Rosewood or Siamese Rosewood, is an ancient hardwood found in the countries of the Mekong region, namely Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

The demand for valuable furniture carved from Siamese Rosewood, chiefly in China, has led to an epidemic of illegal logging and trafficking, threatening the species with extinction and resulting in a deadly war with poachers, particularly from the Thai government.

Corruption, gun battles and a “sound” investment

An officially protected species, Saimese Rosewood is used to create ornate furniture, often reproductions of pieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties. While the craze for this furniture is real among affluent communities in China, it is largely driven by speculation. Unfortunately, the more rare the wood becomes, the more valuable the furniture pieces. This has led to comparisons between Siamese Rosewood and gold or other precious metals.

From a 2013 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency:

Rosewood prices started to spike with the increase in Chinese millionaires and the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2011, EIA investigators witnessed a rosewood bed for sale in China for one million dollars. Since then black market prices have rocketed, making Siam Rosewood more valuable than gold.

Efforts in Thailand to stop illegal felling of Siamese Rosewood and its trafficking is a dangerous game and arguably a bit too much to ask of forest rangers. Nonetheless, Thai authorities have formed an elite group of rangers, known as Hasadin, to deal with the poaching epidemic.

There have been significant casualties on both sides.

From the Guardian:

The poachers don’t care if we’re rangers … if they meet us and they have weapons in their hands, they shoot immediately without warning.

—Piroon Pilaphop, leader, Hasadin’s Dong Yai wildlife sanctuary team

Siamese Rosewood Facts:

  • Conservationists worry that the species could be extinct within 10 years
  • The hongmu furniture craze is a global problem
  • In 2015 seven Thai forest rangers died in connection with Siamese Rosewood crime
  • In 2012 at least 45 Cambodians were killed in shootouts involving the Thai Army along the border between the two countries
  • According to the EIA, a large amount of illegally logged Siamese Rosewood has also been smuggled over the Mekong from Thailand to Laos and then to traders in Vietnam
  • Most illegally traded Siamese Rosewood ends up in China
  • Most arrests connected to Siamese Rosewood crime have been of poor Thai and Cambodian farmers and not more powerful or influential figures in the trade

Successes and further challenges

Rosewood furniture, known as “hongmu” in Chinese, is chic in the PRC and this spells problems for conservation efforts in countries where any variety of the wood is grown. This includes not only countries in the Mekong region, but also Latin American states and even more so, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the NGO Forest Trends, the export of Cambodian Rosewood fell by 95 percent in the first nine months of 2015 in comparison with the previous year. According to the Chinese government, Mekong rosewood imports to the PRC have significantly dropped, thanks to an anti-corruption drive by China’s Communist Party and trends towards less expensive softwood furniture.

However, as traditional sources diminish in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, traders are turning elsewhere to feed continuing demand in China. This often means Gambia and Senegal, but also Nigeria, Togo, Mali and Madagascar, where bans on illegal extraction are poorly enforced.

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