Countries as far away as Mozambique in Africa and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific as well as Myanmar, Laos and other Chinese neighbors are felling rare hardwoods and other trees at unsustainable rates to fulfill Chinese demand, said the report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based activist group.
In some countries, the EIA found that Chinese buyers were undermining international agreements to stop illegal logging and the exports of rare species by making payoffs and using smuggling networks.
"These investigations reveal how Chinese traders thrive on crime, corruption, the purchase of political patronage and poor forest governance in the producer countries from which they source," said the report. It later said "China's government has done virtually nothing to curb illegal imports, while putting in place policies to ensure supply from some of the worst illegal logging hotspots in the world."
Chinese government agencies declined initial comment, saying they had not seen the report and asking for questions be submitted in writing. In the past, the government has responded to criticisms that China is preying on developing nations' raw materials by saying the trade is mutually beneficial, generating income and jobs for the suppliers.
The report, which relied on undercover investigations and on analyzing data from U.N. and Chinese agencies, adds wood to the list of indicators of how Chinese demand is reshaping the world. China already consumes most of the world's iron ore mined annually to make the steel to build its cities. Its factories, cars and coal-burning power plants have turned it into the largest emitter of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Likewise, Chinese demand for wood has been driven by the country's fast-rising prosperity and its emergence as the world's workshop over the past 15 years. At the same time, to rescue China's degraded environment, Beijing has imposed tight controls on logging and a massive tree-planting program.
The overall effect, the report said, is that Beijing is "exporting deforestation." At risk are some of the world's last reserves of hardwoods, as well as biodiversity, as land cleared of forests is often given over to farming of more common trees or, worse, leads to environmental despoliation.
China is now the biggest importer, consumer and exporter of timber and wood products, the report said. With less wood being supplied domestically, China is turning to other countries to meet the shortfall. In 2011, the report estimates that of all the wood products China imported, illegally logged timber accounted for about 10 percent—or 18.5 million cubic meters—a volume worth $3.7 billion and enough to fill Beijing's Olympic Stadium six times.
A glaring example of China's role, the report said, is Myanmar, also known as Burma. While forests on the mountainous hillsides on the Chinese side of the border appear "relatively intact," EIA's undercover investigators found those across the border on the Myanmar side are devastated. A 2006 agreement to stop the illegal trade by requiring that Myanmar logs and timber be exported by sea to China instead of overland was being widely breached, the report said.
In the city of Kunming, 700 kilometers (430 miles) east of the Myanmar border, the investigators posing as buyers talked with a wood trader who described rapid deforestation in Myanmar. The trader told them that Chinese authorities did not care if imported timber was felled illegally, as long as import duties were paid.