Taiwan authorities said Tuesday they had made 22 arrests and seized timber worth over NT$100 million (US$3.32 million) in a December 19 raid targeting a vast illegal logging ring.
Authorities on the island have long fought forest poachers, known colloquially as “mountain rats,” who traverse the mountains searching for the coveted wood of endangered trees. The wood is then sold to artists and shopkeepers who craft it into wooden sculptures sold to Taiwanese buyers and a sizable contingent of foreign tourists, especially Chinese nationals.
The illegal logging bust announced Tuesday is one of the largest ever in Taiwan, according to Chiayi County chief prosecutor Miao Cho-jan.
A special team composed of officials from Chiayi County, Nantou County, and Kaohsiung’s Qiaotou District, along with Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau, organized the raids after the Qiaotou District Prosecutors Office was tipped to the gang’s operations six months ago, according to prosecutors from the three areas.
The team determined the operation was being helmed by a 53-year-old man identified only by his surname, Chen. Prosecutors said the logging ring, encompassing eight cities and countries, provided “one stop services” for buyers, dealing in sculpting, timber sales, and the procurement of wood from Taiwan’s old growth forests.
Authorities arrested Chen in last week’s raid, along with 21 others said to be involved in the operation.
Fifty tons of timber from protected endemic trees, including the Taiwan red cypress and stout camphor, were seized in the raid, Miao said.
Earlier this year, Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau said that illegal logging cases had dropped to an eight-year low in 2018, dipping to 157 after police made 239 arrests in 2017 and 244 in 2016.
But demand for wood from Taiwan’s protected trees remains high. At Taiwan’s wood art markets, buyers peruse sculptures crafted from endangered old-growth trees such as the red cypress, Hinoki yellow cypress, and incense cedar, along with myriad camphor products.
Authorities often arrest migrant workers, usually Vietnamese nationals, recruited by illegal logging ringleaders to work as forest poachers for up to NT$30,000 (US$997) for a single trip into the mountains. (Prosecutors have not revealed whether any of the 22 individuals arrested in last week’s raid are foreign nationals).
Vietnamese workers hired for illegal logging operations are often unaware of the legal repercussions of poaching Taiwan’s endangered trees. In the mountains, they act as foot soldiers for Taiwanese timber traders, whose whereabouts and level of involvement can be far harder to trace.
Under Taiwan’s Forestry Act, which was amended in 2015, individuals found guilty of stealing, transporting, collecting, or buying illegally poached forest products can face up to ten-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of up to 10 to 20 times the value of the timber.
In April 2018, a Vietnamese man died while escaping from police attempting to detain him after he and a team were caught on a trip to poach endangered trees in Alishan, a forest area in Chiayi County.
Migrant workers in Taiwan are frequently lured to illegal work due to crushing debt levied by third-party job brokers. Under Taiwanese law, migrant workers may not transfer jobs without government permission. Many foreign workers report being underpaid by employers, given job responsibilities beyond the terms of their contracts, and charged excessive fees by brokers.
Environmental and migrant worker’s rights advocates have criticized Taiwan’s government for not enforcing timber regulations at the point of sale, where unlicensed wood regularly changes hands in cash transactions and few buyers ask questions about sourcing.
The Forestry Bureau has evaluated the feasibility of a DNA database to allow prosecutors to identify illegal timber in poaching cases, but it has thus far not considered using this database to identify wood already for sale at Taiwan’s wood art markets.
The Taiwanese timber trade has roots dating back to the island’s era of Japanese colonization, when endemic wood was extracted from Taiwan’s mountains and shipped back to Japan.
Wood art sculptures have long been popular in markets such as Sanyi, in Taiwan’s Miaoli County. A tourist hotspot, Sanyi is home to hundreds of shops selling sculptures and other wood products.
To the town’s shopkeepers and buyers, the wood’s origin is an open, but generally unspoken, secret.