The Great Timber Rush

Shrinking rainforests coupled with growing demand for prized timbers is fueling a new ‘gold rush’. It is not without risk.

Luke Hunt

Disappearing rainforests coupled with increased demand for prized timbers is fueling a bonanza, the equivalent of a gold rush for lumber. Once considered too expensive for harvest, the returns on lost or discarded logs has attracted a new type of treasure hunter despites the risks.

The trade — not unlike the scrap recycling industry in metal, plastics or glass – has moved across Malaysia, Indonesia and onto the Thai-Cambodian borders where poachers are scouring the jungles for rosewood, among the world’s most sought-after timber.

Some poachers have lost their lives, unwittingly and illegally crossing a border within gunshot of an alert guard or by standing on a landmine left over from the decades of war which blighted Cambodia.

It is perhaps a great indictment on the treatment of natural resources by governments across Southeast Asia. Particularly in places like Borneo, where treasure hunters once associated with Spanish doubloons or Ming Dynasty China are now scouring coastal waters and river beds for timber.

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During the 1970s heavy machinery capable of extracting the world’s largest trees came onto the market and as a result giant rainforests were felled. Among the biggest firms was the North Borneo Timber Company, which was taking 1.2 million cubic meters, about 300,000 logs a year, by the mid-1980s.

In that rush thousands of logs slipped out of reach before they could be loaded for export on ships bound for Europe, America and Japan. Retrieving these logs has become a business in its own right with tropical hardwoods and softwoods favored for a variety of applications.

Bar owners prefer damarminyak for bar tops while ramin is favored for wood paneling in corporate offices.

The Yakuza, an organized crime group in Japan, also admired both timbers and their orders required special shipments once the cutting of rainforests boomed in the 1980s and 90s. Piano makers sought perupok to make the hammers that strike the piano strings.

During the middle part of the 1980’s, Sabah, part of Malaysia, was producing more than 12 million cubic meters of timber a year. According to veteran industry sources that figure has been reduced sharply to a still sizeable three to four million cubic meters but much of this is secondary forest timber and only used locally, not for export.

Lumber varies in price according to species and type. Broadly logs are valued at between US$1000 and US$3,000 each, they have at least doubled in price since the 1980s but in many cases prices have increased by much more dependent upon their rarity. Like most commodities, timber is enjoying record prices.

A round figure for the costs to retrieve the logs, which includes taxes, royalties, hydraulics, barges, fuel and a team of 12 to 15 men working around the clock is about 100 U.S. dollars per cubic meter. It’s a flat rate hence the faster the job is done the more people make.

It’s dangerous work.

“They employed divers from Semporna on the far west coast of Borneo, normally native Bajau and Suluk who were experts,” said one treasure hunter.

He declined to be named because legalities surrounding the practice are vague, particularly in regards to royalties.  Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Tawau and Sebatik are popular spots.

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Divers working with a compressor and hose know where the log ponds are and work at low tide, dig in and tie a rope with a float around the log, hook it up to a scow and then transport it to a saw mill where they are cut and sold at market price with few questions asked.

If the timber can be retrieved for 100 US dollars per cubic meter at current prices then the rewards are great whether it’s diving for sunken lumber or stealing logs from the forests on the Cambodian and Thai border.