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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - China's insatiable appetite for timber is driving a growing illegal trade that is stripping forests in Africa and Asia and fuelling conflict, underscoring the urgency for Beijing to enact laws to crack down, an environment group said on Thursday.
China is the world's top importer of illegal timber, with the trade worth about $4 billion a year, said the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Globally, Interpol estimates total trade in illegal timber is more than $30 billion.
The EIA released its report "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber" in Beijing to highlight what it said was China's lack of action, in contrast to major trading partners such as the United States.
"China has built a vast wood-processing industry, reliant on imports for most of its raw materials supply. It is in effect exporting deforestation," the group said in the report.
It said China's state-owned companies played a major role in securing supplies from overseas. An EIA analysis of China's trade data for 2007 showed state-owned firms imported nearly half the volume of tropical logs that year.
The EIA, drawing on its own investigations and the work of Interpol, the World Bank and others, says China's demand for timber has fuelled conflict in Myanmar, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea as well as parts of Africa.
China's booming economy has driven demand for timber for construction.
In addition, many of its newly wealthy are splashing out on furniture, including items such as rosewood lounge sets that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with much of the timber sourced illegally from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand or Madagascar.
In Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter and even more in neighboring countries, says EIA. The trade is fuelling clashes between loggers and authorities.
China's rapidly growing timber imports are underpinning huge growth in exports of furniture, flooring, moldings and paper products. Wood product exports have increased nearly seven-fold in the past decade to $34.2 billion in 2010, says EIA.
Log imports in 2000 totaled 13.6 million cubic meters worth $1.6 billion. By 2011, imports totaled 42 million cubic meters worth $8.2 billion, with Russia the top log supplier last year, the United States second and Papua New Guinea third.
"More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," the group said.
By contrast, China's forest cover has increased because of tough forest protection laws and replanting programmes.
The EIA estimates China imported at least 18.5 million cubic meters of illegal logs and sawn timber in 2011, worth $3.7 billion. The group said the estimate was conservative.
"Such rampant illegal trade is having a dire impact on the forests of Asia-Pacific and local communities. In the Solomon Islands, exports to China are seven times higher than the sustainable logging rate, with forests predicted to be emptied of commercial timber by 2015," the EIA said.
In Myanmar, illegal log exports to China's Yunnan province were 500,000 cubic meters by mid-2012, the EIA said. It quoted loggers as saying mountains in Myanmar were being stripped bare. This was despite 2006 agreements between both countries to halt illegal cross-border trade.
"China has an opportunity here to seriously respond to their illegally sourced imports," Faith Doherty, head of EIA's Forests Campaign, told Reuters.
She pointed to growing global action, with the United States, European Union and Australia enacting laws to ban illegal timber imports.
Editing by Robert Birsel