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Thailand’s border timber war

Posted By on May 25, 2015 @ 11:00

Kallai Timber Yard [1]

The illegal harvesting and smuggling of the rare and valuable Siamese Rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis [2]) across the Thai-Cambodian border is an issue that’s landed on ASEAN member states’ desks yet again. On 7 May, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) outlined the complexities involved in allowing the illegal timber trade to thrive to the 11th Meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Wildlife Enforcement Network (WEN) in Brunei. To put things in perspective, the operation of the Siamese Rosewood supply chain involves a range of national criminal offences including corruption, fraud, money laundering, and murder. On top of these criminal offences, it’s the strategic implications of this highly profitable (illegal timber trade in ASEAN is estimated to be worth USD 17 billion per year [3]), illicit and vertically integrated supply chain that presents a regional security challenge.

Found in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, Siamese Rosewood is highly valued by Chinese furniture makers, with small coffee tables being sold for tens of thousands of US dollars each. During the last twelve months alone the price of Siamese Rosewood has tripled [4].

While the EIA stressed the importance of Siamese Rosewood preservation for the region and Australia, the report presents two worrying trends for the greater Mekong subregion. First, the illegal harvesting of rosewood is symptomatic of the environmental sustainability challenges faced by the region’s developing economies. Second, organised crime value chains focused on the illegal timber trade are both integrating and globalising. And so from a regional security perspective, the reporting also underscores the continued evolution of non-political or religiously motivated transnational organised crime in the greater Mekong subregion.

Illegal logging now threatens Siamese Rosewood with extinction [5], despite the fact that the species is protected by national laws in all range states. In 2013, Siamese Rosewood was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [6] (CITES).

The current exploitation of dwindling supplies of Siamese Rosewood is indicative of the new era of natural resource scarcity in ASEAN. For almost twenty years Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia enjoyed the benefits of a highly profitable timber resource boom. During this period, many public officials viewed the region as ‘the land of plenty’.

With the turn of the century, there has been a growing realisation in some ASEAN states that the region is now entering a period of increased scarcity [7]. While the opening up of the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Myanmar economies has eased the short-term regional resource shortage, scarcity still looms large.

In the approaching era of natural resource scarcity, ASEAN states must be able to exercise sovereignty over their natural resources to ensure both their sustainable exploitation and access to appropriate royalties. There are additional challenges with the impending achievement of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC); coordination between ASEAN economic spheres will be hard, particularly ensuring that the environmental ministries are included in the drafting of policies set to drive economic growth.

The criminal exploitation of natural resources such as timber is contributing to regional instability. Despite the existence of national and international laws, the trade in Siamese Rosewood continues. Siamese Rosewood is illegally harvested in all range countries (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand), often by cross border loggers, and shipped to China via either Laos or Vietnam. In China, Siamese Rosewood products are openly traded.

With the illicit timber trade now integrated across multiple borders, the challenge for ASEAN is where and how to disrupt this multinational supply chain. In many cases, the Siamese Rosewood supply chain [8] is operated by well-established transnational organised crime groups. While Thai enforcement and border security officials rigorously pursue illegal loggers, those involved in later stages of the supply chain continue to operate with impunity.

For ASEAN states in the greater Mekong region, the illicit trade in Siamese Rosewood underscores border security failures. Non-state actors and transitional organised crime syndicates, are directly challenging state sovereignty over their natural resources. While there’s a history of religious and political motivated insurgencies in Southeast Asia, the ongoing conflict between illegal loggers and forest rangers, police and soldiers amounts to criminal insurgency.

So far the coordination of national responses across the Mekong subregion has been limited. The targeting of the illicit timber trade, remains for the most part the responsibility of forestry and agricultural departments who have limited capacity to deal with such a complex, capable and often violent threat. Given the globalised dimension of this activity and the challenges in rooting it out, a far more coordinated approach to disruption operations is needed.

Australia has an important role to play in highlighting the regional security implications of Thailand’s border timber war for ASEAN states. A regional response to the impacts of the growing primary resource scarcity in the region needs to be encouraged, especially with regards to the rapid exploitation of Laos and Myanmar.



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URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/3537627607_335eea70cf_z.jpg

[2] Dalbergia cochinchinensis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalbergia_cochinchinensis

[3] illegal timber trade in ASEAN is estimated to be worth USD 17 billion per year: http://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2013/TOCTA_EAP_web.pdf

[4] tripled: http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20130927000106&cid=1102

[5] extinction: http://eia-international.org/international-protection-for-siam-rosewood-begins

[6] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species: http://cites.org/eng/app/index.php

[7] period of increased scarcity: http://www.isis.org.my/attachments/commentaries/2015/HA_AM_Bk_Environ_Challenges_Governance_Chp7_2015.pdf

[8] Siamese Rosewood supply chain: http://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/Routes-of-Extinction-FINAL-lo-res.pdf

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