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Could China Lead the Race to Save Tropical Forests?

Africa: Could China Lead the Race to Save Tropical Forests?

china-flagThe world's tropical forests - the planet's lungs - are in rapid decline.
Over the past 60 years over 60% of them have disappeared, while two-thirds of those that remain are fragmented. Demolition is driven, in large part, by logging, much of it illegal, which in turn paves the way for clear-cutting for plantations and agriculture.

Deforestation is driven by international consumer demand not just for timber, but for everything from soy and rubber to palm oil and other supposedly climate-friendly biofuels. What makes this possible is the failure of governments to stir themselves beyond re-heated rhetoric about the importance of forests and the establishment of international talking shops that deliver little.

What would make China's leaders care about their impact on tropical forests? The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)'s new 'China-Africa Forest Governance Learning Platform' report demonstrates the role increased dialogue can play. It showcases an innovative collaboration involving African civil society representatives and Chinese officials, aimed at ensuring that China's demand for African timber brings benefits to local populations.

The report notes that African timber currently accounts for around 4% of China's forest product imports, worth around US$1.3 billion. This demand is rising, and China's role in the timber trade, globally, is pivotal. A study published by the Environmental Investigation Agency(EIA) last year estimated that China importe at least 18.5 million cubic metres of illegal logs and sawn timber in 2011, worth US $3.7 billion, constituting 10% of China's total wood products imports Chinese timber industry representatives contest some of EIA's figures, but it is clear that alternative interpretations of available trade data cannot explain away a very serious problem.

China is in good company, however. According to a European Commission study published on 2 July, Europe itself accounts for 36% of the international trade in products and commodities that drive deforestation, although it is home to just 7% of the world's population. Moreover, while domestic demand in China is escalating, the country remains the world's assembly shop for many wood-based products. Chinese officials have long pointed out China's wood processing firms are links in a supply chain serving consumers in Europe, North America, Japan and elsewhere.

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