Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 08:31 AM
A Thai force dubbed the "Rambo Army" couldn't stop the gangs, armed with battlefield weaponry, as they scoured the forests. Neither could a brave activist, gunned down when he came to investigate. Nor, apparently, can governments across Southeast Asia.
The root of the conflicts and bloodshed? Rosewood.
The richly hued, brownish hardwood is being illegally ripped from Southeast Asian forests, then smuggled by sea and air to be turned into Chinese furniture that can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of it also ends up in the finest American guitars, or as billiard cues.
The felling, almost all of it illegal, has increased dramatically in recent years and driven the region's rosewood to the brink of extinction.
"This is not just an environmental issue. It drives corruption and criminal networks. There is a lot of violence and blood spilled before the rosewood ends up in someone's living room," says Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nongovernmental group based in London. "It's one of the most expensive woods in the world. That's why there is a war for it."
In Koh Kong, a jungle region of southwest Cambodia where most villagers earn less than $2 a day, finding a rosewood tree is better than winning the lottery. A cubic meter (1.3 cubic yards) of top-grade rosewood last year could be sold for up to $2,700 to middlemen who hover around forests and construction sites of dams and roads in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Various species grow in Southeast Asia and countries including India, Brazil and Madagascar. Nearly all source nations have banned felling and export of unprocessed rosewood, allowing harvesting only in special cases such as clearing forests for dam construction.
The volume of rosewood consumed by China alone suggests that most was obtained illegally. China imported $600 million worth in 2011, according to official Chinese documents made available by James Hewitt, an expert on the illegal timber trade at the London think tank Chatham House. About half came from Southeast Asian countries.
The documents also show that China's appetite is soaring - from just 66,000 cubic meters in 2005 to 500,000 cubic meters last year. Rosewood has long been prized in China, and the dramatic growth of its wealthy class is cited as the main reason for the surge in exploitation.
The hunt for rosewood ignites violence between officials and smugglers, and sometimes among rival gangs.
The EIA estimates that nearly 50 Cambodian loggers and smugglers have been killed in Thailand and others arrested over the past two years in clashes, with Thais also suffering casualties.
In Koh Kong, one of the country's leading environmental activists, Chut Wutty, was shot dead in April while investigating illegal rosewood logging by Timbergreen, a company with no known address that is believed to be a hook-up of gangs and officials.
In Thailand `s northeast, authorities last year formed what they called a "Rambo Army" of 11-man units of armed forestry rangers to target the traffickers who cross the porous frontier from Cambodia, often in well-armed bands. The Rambo Army was disbanded after a three-month operation due to lack of funds.
Despite the loss of law-enforcement muscle and widespread corruption, thousands of illegally felled trees have been seized in recent years and many of those accused of involvement in the trade have been arrested, including the son of a Cambodian general and 12 Thai police officers. Last month, Thai authorities nabbed eight Cambodian rosewood hunters in the Thai border province of Sisaket.
It hasn't been enough to protect rosewood in Thailand. By some official estimates, the number of rosewood trees there dropped from 300,000 in 2005 to as low as 80,000 last year.
"The spectrum of illegal rosewood logging ranges from loggers, military and police officers to Thai forestry officials. This network runs the industry," says Chavalit Lohkunsombat, who commanded the Rambo Army and remains head of the forest protection unit of Nakhon Sawan province.
Once the smuggled rosewood snakes its way to furniture makers in China, often via Vietnam, the price escalates. A sofa and chair set of high quality "hongmu" or rosewood can sell for $320,000, according to the China Daily. A four-poster bed was seen by the EIA with a $1 million price tag.
Some rosewood makes its way to the U.S. and Europe. A number of Chinese websites offer rosewood products to Western customers.
U.S. authorities in 2009 and 2011 raided the Tennessee plants of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, seizing $500,000 worth of imported ebony and rosewood that was to be used in fingerboards. Gibson paid $350,000 in penalties in August to settle federal charges of illegally importing ebony, but rosewood was not part of the charges.
Environmental groups suspect many such rosewood sales violate U.S. and European Union laws.
"I would be very interested to see how American and European outlets prove that the products they are selling come from legally felled wood," says Doherty of EIA, which has been investigating the rosewood trade for several years. "In countries with widespread corruption and fraud, you need an independent monitor on the ground and that is not happening. When I look at products in American stores, I have my doubts."
China is making tentative efforts to import rosewood and other species from legal sources, having established several bodies to regulate the trade. But one Chinese official familiar with the timber trade acknowledged that while the Beijing government was in principle against illegally imported wood, "this has yet to be reinforced by laws." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Chinese customs documents show Cambodia exported 36,000 cubic meters of logs to China from January 2007 to August 2012. The Cambodian government recently issued a blanket denial, but there's a different story on the ground.
In recent years, Chinese companies have begun building dams in Koh Kong, making inroads into one of the region's largest tracts of wilderness, and Cambodian logging groups were awarded licenses to log out areas the dams will flood.
According to foreign conservationists and the Cambodian human rights group LICADHO, which has investigators in Koh Kong, the work created an opportunity for "tree laundering." They say logging companies falsified documents to make it appear their wood came from permitted areas when it was actually harvested up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
"There's not a lot of valuable timber in dam reservoir areas because of where they are located and these are not huge areas. So they roam all over the mountains cutting luxury timber first," says Marcus Hardtke, a German forestry expert who has worked extensively in Cambodia, including Koh Kong. "You can drive many trucks through that loophole."
LICADHO and foreign conservationists say trees are felled by the company itself or villagers, who in some cases pull a single rosewood tree by ox cart for three or four weeks so they can sell it to middlemen. Military police trucks ferry the timber to warehouses in remote areas of Koh Kong. Then it's shipped down the Tatay River by barges to seagoing vessels headed for Vietnam, or by road to the capital, Phnom Penh, and on to the Vietnamese border.
When the rosewood trade surged in late 2009, trucks were running night and day piled with logs in Koh Kong. Now, with the rapid depletion, villagers are going for roots, branches and old cuttings, selling rosewood by the kilogram rather than cubic meter, conservationists say.
EIA says that to curb the trade, Southeast Asian nations must push for rosewood to be included in CITES, the international treaty protecting trade in endangered flora and fauna. Rosewood species from Madagascar and Brazil are already listed.
Listing rosewood would force China to seize imports not accompanied by official CITES documents from country of origin. But given corrupt, vested interests, this is not easy. Regional cooperation is also essential.
"Punishment in Thailand is very light," says Chavalit, the Thai forestry official. "Most loggers get suspended sentences if they confess. What we need is harsher punishment and serious law enforcement. Thai authorities need to be serious about illegal logging suppression."
Tougher regulations on timber exports to the European Union will take effect in March. In the U.S., the Lacey Act of 2008 makes it illegal to import wood harvested and exported illegally under another country's laws.
But all this may prove too late for forests.
"The rosewood is almost all gone from Koh Kong after just a few years," says LICADHO's In Kongchit. "It has been a total rape."
Associated Press writers Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok and AP researcher Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.