In Taiwan’s old-growth forests, the illegal timber trade remains big business. Poachers venture into the mountains in search of the endangered Hinoki cypress and red cedar trees, preferring those which have developed unique wood patterns over time – Hinoki trees can live up to 3,000 years.

Artisans carve the timber into elaborate sculptures, and the finished products are sold to eager Taiwanese and Chinese buyers in markets like those of Sanyi, a tourist town and Taiwan’s woodcarving mecca. The process begins in the mountain forests as a tightly wrapped secret, but once wood reaches the point of sale, it finds no further need to hide.


Nick Aspinwall

Many wood products are freely available in Taiwan, but sourcing is uncertain.

Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau targets the head of the beast, cooperating with local law enforcement and the Seventh Special Police Force (警政署保安警察第七總隊) to track and arrest poachers, colloquially known as “mountain rats” (山老鼠). In a statement to The News Lens, Forestry Bureau official Peter Chang (張凱翔) said the pursuit of poachers is critical to the nation’s safety, as they are often affiliated with gang activity, weapons and drugs.

The agency is developing new ideas, such as using information from a DNA database to help prosecutors in poaching cases identify illegally obtained timber. But these new ideas target poachers, not sellers. Taiwan lacks a full ban on illegal timber sales, and the Forestry Bureau hasn’t made an ironclad commitment to ending the sale of illegal wood. Sellers are increasingly being prosecuted, but cases are hard to prove. In practice, Taiwan’s illegal wood markets operate openly, which only increases the financial incentive to poach.

Being a guardian of Taiwan’s ancient trees represents a role conversion for the Forestry Bureau, which itself used to operate as a for-profit logging corporation. Since 1990, it has worked to conserve the same primeval forests its forerunners once decimated. After an uneasy ride through the past quarter century, the Forestry Bureau under the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has pledged to make forests sustainable, using the standards of the Germany-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as a model.

Taiwan lacks a full ban on illegal timber sales, and the Forestry Bureau hasn’t made an ironclad commitment to ending the sale of illegal wood.

The FSC, which uses a set of criteria to certify wood products as sustainable, sees the illegal timber trade as a direct threat to its objectives and advocates for full illegal timber bans worldwide. “The FSC strongly supports any measures aimed at combating illegal poaching activities or illegal logging,” FSC International Media Manager Alex Dunn told The News Lens, citing model legislation such as the U.S. Lacey Act and the EU Timber Regulation.

Despite this, the Forestry Bureau sees the issues of forest preservation and poaching enforcement as distinct. “There is no evidence showing that converting to sustainable domestic forests helps curb illegal poaching or protect old trees,” said Chang.

Taiwan’s logging industry started with the Japanese, who built the Alishan Forest Railway and made Alishan cypress and cedar into household names which still proudly adorn the signs of Sanyi shops. Hinoki wood was shipped to Japan where, coveted for its wood grain, scent, and sturdiness, it was often used in temple construction. By 1945, the logging industry had been fully weaponized for profit, with little regard for its long-term sustainability.

The Kuomintang inherited the forestry industry when they took power and promptly scaled up the operation of the burgeoning cash cow. They built roads and used trucks to transport wood out of the forests, primarily to feed the still-hungry Japanese market. The timber harvesting program reached a peak of about 2,000,000 cubic meters harvested in 1972, which raised alarm among environmental conservation groups. In 1976, Taiwan purportedly shifted to emphasizing forest protection and harvesting primarily from forest plantations.

However, state exploitation of natural forests continued into the 1980s. In 1988, photojournalist Lai Chunbiao (賴春標) published a series of reports in Ren Jian Magazine (人間雜誌) which exposed logging of ancient trees on Forestry Bureau owned lands and led to a public outcry, as the practice had not been formally made illegal. Taiwan passed a ban on the logging on centennial trees in 1990, which was quickly extended to cover all natural forests in 1991.

At this time, 99 percent of Taiwan’s timber supply was imported and domestic production was stalling. The Forestry Bureau introduced a policy called Forestation for All (全民造林運動) which encouraged a "harvesting and reforestation approach" in secondary forests. In 1996, after Typhoon Herb destroyed large swaths of the island’s forests, the government pledged to compensate farmers to plant new trees on bare land, which they could either own or rent from the government. But in 2004, a report by Taipei nonprofit Citizens of the Earth showed that farmers had been allowed to cut and sell existing camphor trees, then replant on the newly barren land.

“Typhoon Herb was an excuse” to provide a means of profit to forest farmers, said Li Genzheng (李根政), CEO of Citizens of the Earth Taiwan, an environmental advocacy organization.

“The policy was announced to prevent landslides and plant trees. However, the intention and the background of the policy was to offer the farmers some allowances to help them plant trees.” Citizens of the Earth worked with the Forestry Bureau to compensate farmers for non-deforestation, but it was clear that the cut-and-plant approach of the time was running counter to the government’s sustainability goals.


Nick Aspinwall

Li Genzheng, CEO of Citizens of the Earth Taiwan.

The DPP scrapped Forestation for All when it took power, aiming to “promote domestic woods for a higher self-sufficiency ratio,” said Li.

In 2016, the Forestry Bureau released its fourth ever Forestry Navigation Report. The survey, completed once every 18 years, gave reasons for optimism – Taiwan’s total forest coverage has increased to 60.9 percent, up from 58.5 percent in 1986 and 50.8 percent in 1964. However, Li warns that there’s no way of knowing how well Taiwan’s primeval cypress and cedar forests have been preserved.

At present, the Forestry Bureau is embracing the guidelines of the FSC, which bestows certifications upon forests and timber supply chains which are managed according to its sustainability standards. In 2017, the Bunun Tribe became the first indigenous group in the region to have a section of its forest certified by the FSC. As it firmly settles into its role as a protector of the nation’s forests, the Forestry Bureau would like to see the success of the Bunun people repeated throughout Taiwan.

Doing so would mean establishing clean timber supply chains from forests on to the point of sale. FSC controlled wood standards ban the presence of “unacceptable wood,” which includes illegally harvested wood and timber from protected forests, in the supply chain. “Final products that carry an FSC claim and logo ensure that the product does not originate from any illegal sources from the forest management level,” said Dunn, “and subsequently throughout the chain of custody by companies trading and processing such timber.”

The products for sale at wood art markets like Sanyi are nowhere close to meeting such standards. The Forestry Bureau is stepping up its anti-poaching efforts through an increased emphasis on enforcement, said Chang, as well as a four-year study to evaluate ideas such as developing a DNA database to allow law enforcement to identify Hinoki cypress and incense cedar in poaching cases. The database could theoretically be used to identify wood for sale at art markets, said Chang, but it’s being developed with the intent of assisting in the prosecution of illegal loggers.

Regardless of the database’s success, there are significant challenges to catching illegal loggers in the first place. “It would be very difficult for the government to single-handedly fight illegal logging, given the wide range of mountains and the complexity of the topography in Taiwan,” said Li. He thinks an emphasis on certifying products at the point of sale would be more effective. “We need some change from the end consumer,” he said. “The government should establish a system that demands an indication of source for all products; marks for place of origin.”

When asked for comment, Chang said that “there is currently no relevant data showing it’s more effective to arrest poachers than to arrest merchants [who] sell illegal timber.” There have been some recent arrests of illegal timber sellers in Sanyi, but enforcement on the supply chain deteriorates as wood gets closer to the hands of buyers, and there are no proposals to establish a blanket ban on illegally sourced timber.

One thing is for certain: if Taiwanese authorities decide to step up their crackdown on the illegal wood trade at the point of sale, the buyers and sellers will not be hard to find.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston