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The Stolen Forests

This page is a brief paragraph-by-paragraph summary of an article by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker entitled The Stolen Forests  (6 October 2008).

The following vocabulary is essential to an understanding of the article:

timber: the name for the wood that comes from fallen trees and is to be processed in some way (a synonym of timber is lumber).
logging: the word for the cutting down of trees; a synonym for the trade in timber
log: a log is part of a cut tree without its branches
logger: a person who cuts down trees
smuggling: the word for the illegal import/export of a product (in this case, timber)
deforestation: the cutting down of trees in large areas of forest


Suifenhe (flickr.com)

1: The town of Suifenhe in China is home to a timber factory that processes more than 5 billion pounds of wood per year, most of which comes from Russia.

2: Last May two "spies" (von Bismark and Wu De) from the Environmental Investigation Agency entered Suifenhe to discover how much timber was being smuggled.

3: About half of the hardwood entering Suifenhe from Russia has been harvested illegally. There is a huge criminal network involved in each stage of this illegal process.

4: Von Bismark and Wu De had gone to Suifenhe to investigate this criminal activity.

5: This paragraph gives information about the family history of von Bismark. Because of the divorce of his parents he spent half of his childhood in America and the other half in Germany.

6: This paragraph tells us more about von Bismark and how he came to join the Environmental Investigation Agency.

7: A third of the world's land is currently covered by forest. There has been a huge increase in deforestation in the last 50-60 years.

8: A fifth of the world's wood comes from countries that cannot or will not prevent illegal logging.

9: The Environmental Investigation Agency started to fight illegal logging in 1999 after becoming aware of problems in Indonesia. At the end of the last century as much as 70% of Indonesia's timber harvest was illegal.

10: Von Bismark's first undercover job was to investigate the illegal harvesting of ramin, a tree whose wood can easily be turned into cheap wooden products.

11: In 2003 von Bismark went to Malaysia and Taiwan. As a result of his investigations huge America stores such as Wal-Mart stopped buying products made of ramin.

12: More and more timber factories started to open in China. China banned cutting of trees within the country but began to import huge amounts of timber from abroad, especially from Russia.

13: This paragraph describes the office where von Bismark plans his investigations.

14: Von Bismark chose to investigate illegal timber logging as it related to Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the USA. He wanted to show the process by which wooden products ended up in Wal-Mart stores.

15: Von Bismark started his investigation by trying to find out the origin of each wooden product sold by Wal-Mart. He was helped in this by David Groves. Groves also studied the timber trade in two Chinese cities, Manzhouli and Suifenhe.

16: In the 1980s Suifenhe was opened for trade with Russians from across the border. Since then it has seen a large increase in violence and criminal activity.

17: Most of timber work that is done in Suifenhe is simply cutting logs into smaller pieces for further processing in other places. (The rest of the paragraph describes the foundation of the Longjiang Shanglian Import/Export company responsible for most of the timber trade in Suifenhe.)

18: This paragraph describes von Bismark and Wu De's attempt to enter the Longjiang Shanglian factory and arrange an interview with Sun Laijun, the boss of the Longjiang Shanglian company.

19: During the interview with Sun, von Bismark and Wu De learned about the  protection money Sun had to pay to the mafia. (The rest of this section contains a further discussion of the Sun's problems with the Russian mafia and corrupt Russian officials.)

20: This paragraph lists some of the many murders around the world that are associated with the illegal logging industry.

21: The phrase "conflict timber" is used to describe how logging has become closely connected with fighting between governments and rebels in places such as the Congo, Liberia and Cambodia.

22: This paragraph explains how (Sascha) von Bismark's attitude to violence is based on his own family history.

23: Von Bismark has spoken to the American Congress about "conflict timber".

24: More wood is used locally (for building, fires, etc.) than is exported. However, this still leaves a huge amount of stolen wood that ends up as products in Western countries. The USA is the largest consumer of finished wood products.

25: China has recently started using more wood to create paper. The same thing is happening in India, which will further increase the demand for timber.

26: In general people and governments have the wrong belief that wood is cheap and that there is an endless supply of it. (Wood is cheap mainly because so much of it is logged illegally.)

27: Von Bismark is in Dandong trying to find out the origin of the wood that is used to make the toilet seats bought by Wal-Mart.

28: Thanks to the computer research of David Groves Von Bismark has learned about the connection between Wal-Mart and Dandong Maifasu (the exporter of the toilet seats).

29: This paragraph describes the complexity and volatility of the timber export/import business, which makes investigation of it so difficult.

30: Von Bismark and Wu De visit the Maisafu export company, pretending to be traders. They find out that Russian hardwood is used for 20% of Maisafu's products.

31: Later that day von Bismark and Wu De are able to establish the connection between Wal-Mart and the Longjiang Shanglian company. They are told that Wal-Mart never asks where the wood is from in the wooden products they buy.

32: The oceans and the world's animals are subject to international agreements. But there is no such agreement to protect the world's trees. Despite much discussion, it has been impossible to agree who should pay for this protection.

33: Forests are included in theory in the treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. In practice, however, the treaty has not had much effect in preventing the illegal trade in timber.

34: Von Bismark has been trying to get agreement on an improved way to control timber imports.

35: Von Bismark needs the support of the American Timber Industries, but these companies are typically very suspicious of environmental activists such as Bismark.

36: Eventually the US timber companies came to understand that it was in their own interests to support a strengthening of existing laws governing the timber trade.

37: This paragraph describes the complex negotiations that were conducted to have the new law ready for Congress to approve.

38: Just before Congress was to vote on the law, Monsanto and another company objected. It seemed that the law would not be passed.

39: This paragraph explains some of the problems Monsanto (the company most closely associated with genetically modified food) had with the proposed new law. For example, that it would interfere with their research.

40: In the end Monsanto and the rest of the biotech industry were exempted from the law that was passed. Von Bismark was not happy about this.

41: Von Bismark published a report into his investigations into Wal-Mart's trade in wooden products. His conclusion was that Wal-Mart (and Wal-Mart customers) were complicit in the illegal trade of timber.

42: Wal-Mart replied that they were setting up their own investigation, led by Tom Flynn, into the supply chain of their wooden products.

43: Flynn explains how he had started in his new role and what progress had been made.

44: Wal-Mart signed an agreement with the World Wildlife Fund to eliminate illegal wood from its furniture within 6 years.

45: Von Bismark visited Russia to meet Denis Smirnov, a World Wildlife Fund employee. Together they hoped to find evidence of illegal logging in the far eastern part of Russia.

46: This paragraph describes Smirnov and von Bismark's night-time journey to find illegal logging.

47: On the way to find the loggers they pick up "Vladimir" a police officer.

48: In this paragraph Smirnov talks about the disappearance of the taiga forest and the mafia types responsible for it.

49: After driving all night they stopped and then found a place where illegal logging had taken place shortly before. Von Bismark filmed the scene.

50: The three men find some illegal loggers. The policeman gets his gun ready.

51: Von Bismark films a logger cutting a tree. When the logger sees the policeman he runs away.

52: The policeman chases the logger, firing his gun. Von Bismark follows, filming the scene with his camera. The policeman catches the logger.