Recent research by the Centre’s East Asia Node together with Forest Trends, an NGO, suggests that most import of timber to China from Africa is done by a relatively small number of geographically clustered firms. This may provide opportunities to engage the major importing firms in developing and implementing responsible sourcing practices, say Andreas Wilkes and Huang Wenbin
China’s thirst for natural resources to fuel its economic development has gained the attention of governments, media and civil society worldwide. China’s imports from Africa have received particular attention. Timber is no exception, especially as it is China’s third-largest commodity import from Africa after oil and minerals and the share of total African timber exports going to China has risen over the last decade.
The majority of African log imports by China come from central African countries—Gabon, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Mozambique—although eastern African countries also export smaller volumes to China. Until recently, it is likely that much of this timber was processed in China, from where it would be exported to the EU or the US as furniture or other types of wood products. But since the financial crisis in the West, China’s own domestic market has become more significant.
China’s emerging role in Africa’s forestry sector has raised a range of concerns, some of which are better substantiated than others. Reports by some NGOs and academics suggest that China’s activities in Africa’s forest regions have had adverse impacts on African forest environments, created poor labour conditions, and drive illegal timber trade and corruption, undermining forest governance in African countries. China’s clear preference for unprocessed logs has been said to limit African countries’ abilities to create employment and develop value-adding capabilities. And with increasing numbers of state-owned and private firms involved in the Africa–China timber trade, the risks of increasing the adverse effects of this trade could be rising.