Trains full of logs from Suifenhe, in the northeast of China. According to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, 96 percent of hardwoods exported from Russia end up in China. There, the origins of illegally harvested wood are obscured. (Environmental Investigation Agency)
Lumber Liquidators, the top-selling floor retailer in North America, has since 2008 allegedly purchased millions of square feet of wood illegally logged in Russia — home to the last 450 Siberian tigers in the world — according to a report released today from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
The report comes on the heels of a late-September federal investigation of Lumber Liquidators’ importing practices by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Details of the warrants are sealed.
In a news release after the raid, Lumber Liquidators stated that it follows all applicable international and domestic regulations. “The Company takes its sourcing and compliance very seriously, and is cooperating with authorities to provide them with requested information.”
For the past six years, the EIA has been scrutinizing logging in the region where Lumber Liquidators reportedly sources some of its wood, sending investigators undercover as importers in both Russia and China. The group discovered that despite increased awareness of related laws, like the Lacey Act in the United States, the overall feeling was that “some international customers still did not demand legal wood.”
In particular, EIA learned that an enterprise called Suifenhe Xingjia Group admitted to illegal logging and paying bribes. That company’s single biggest trading partner is, according to the EIA, Lumber Liquidators. The retailer has been working with Xingjia for at least five years, says the report.
Other facts from the EIA report are pretty stark: Fifty to 80 percent of hardwoods felled in this part of the world get harvested illegally. This costs the Russian economy some 4 billion Russian rubles (that’s $123 million) in a single year. And it threatens the livelihoods of more than 100,000 indigenous people.
Not to mention the harm it inflicts on one of the world’s last stands of temperate hardwood forests and some severely threatened species. “Three-hundred-year-old Mongolian oak and great Korean pine trees nourish deer, boars and other animals, which in turn support populations of the critically endangered Siberian tigers and Far Eastern leopards,” the report reads.
“Organized criminal groups send out logging brigades to steal valuable hardwoods from protected areas,” said Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the nonprofit EIA, in a news release. “Importing cheap illegal wood from the Russian Far East is a tragic crime of convenience that directly undercuts any business trying to play by the rules. The same types of wood are available around the world from legal and sustainable sources.”
Whether there will a crackdown on Lumber Liquidators’ logging sources remains unclear. It’s also uncertain how the government shutdown will affect the investigation. USFWS oversees compliance with the Lacey Act, which “makes it a federal crime to poach game in one state with the purpose of selling the bounty in another,” according to the EIA. A 2008 amendment also requires importers to provide additional information about wood coming into the country, like species type and country of origin. But USFWS suspended all work related to the Lacey Act (and others) due to the shutdown. ICE employees are still working. However, that doesn’t apply to public affairs officials, and government websites still aren’t functioning, so we’ve been unable to confirm further details.
If the EIA had its way, Lumber Liquidators — and other companies accused of knowingly buying illegally logged wood from this part of the world — would be prosecuted fully. “Without action,” von Bismarck noted in the news release, “consumers will continue to be unwitting financiers of the timber mafias that are raiding the world’s forests.”
A hunter standing over a dead rhinoceros. (A Bayley-Worthington/Getty Images)