rainforest being turned into furniture
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
May 4, 2020 ·  6 min read

China is Turning the Rainforest into Cheap Furniture for the US

Having healthy, thriving rainforests are crucial to the survival of our planet. Considered to be the oldest biomes on earth, tropical rainforests contribute significantly to the world’s biodiversity, and are home to fifty percent of the world’s plants and animals, despite only taking up six percent of the earth’s surface area [1].

They also play a key role in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which is the main contributor to global climate change. All of the world’s tropical rainforests combined absorb about 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions every year [2].

The Amazon Rainforest is the largest in the world, and its destruction has received the majority of the media coverage, however, it is not the only crucial rainforest ecosystem that we have. There are also rainforests in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Deforestation in Southeast Asia is predominantly caused by the palm oil industry, and in South America, much of the Amazon is chopped down to make way for beef and soy production. Deforestation of the Congo Basin, which is the second-largest rainforest on the planet, is primarily due to industrial logging, small-scale farming, and a demand for wood [3].

Studies over the last couple of years have determined that it is our demand for cheap furniture that has both encouraged and proliferated the extraction of resources out of this immensely important ecosystem.

China and the U.S. are the Number One Culprits

A 2018 report from the University of California has determined that consumer demand in China and the United States has been the primary driver of deforestation in the Congo Basin [4].

The study found that wood exports from countries in the Congo Basin to China doubled between 2001 and 2015. The authors of the study also found that there was a strong correlation between the amount of Chinese logging and the loss of tree cover in the Congo Basin, and that U.S. demand for inexpensive Chinese-made furniture was the main reason for the increase in Chinese timber imports from the Congo [4].

This demand for timber is feeding another growing problem: the illegal lumber trade. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has determined that China is the top importer of illegal timber, a trade that is worth about four billion dollars per year. The global value of the illegal timber trade is estimated at about thirty billion dollars [5].

“China has built a vast wood-processing industry, reliant on imports for most of its raw materials supply. It is in effect exporting deforestation,” the group said in a report [5].

The lead author of the study, Trevon Fuller, says that for a long time, there has been a high demand from US consumers for inexpensive Chinese flooring, furniture, and plywood. Despite new laws banning illegal timber imports in the US, EU, and Australia, China has managed to find loopholes and ways around them, and has continued its aggressive behavior.

Chinese loggers also only want round logs (aka raw timber), which provides minimal opportunity for local sawmilling or woodworking within those countries, which would support the local economies. This keeps the profits in the hands of the Chinese companies, while the countries that contain the forests remain poor [6].

Deforestation is Destroying the Environment and the Livelihood of Native Groups

Destroying the world’s rainforests would release more than three trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere- a contribution greater than that of oil, coal, and gas. Scientists are now warning that halting deforestation is equally as important for mitigating climate change as eliminating the use of fossil fuels [7].

A group of forty scientists from five different countries released a statement saying that the world could achieve eighteen percent of the emissions mitigation needed by 2030 to avoid irreversible climate change by protecting global rainforests.

“We must protect and maintain healthy forests to avoid dangerous climate change and to ensure the world’s forests continue to provide services critical for the well-being of the planet and ourselves,” the statement read [7].

Deforestation is also displacing native groups who have lived in these areas for generations. Lucien Maka, who lives in the Congo Basin with his fellow Bayaka “pygmies”, says that the forest has always provided everything they need. His people, who have lived in that area for millennia as hunters and gatherers, are now being forced to go deeper and deeper into the jungle as their land is being stripped away.

Logging, farmland, and wildlife reserves have shrunk the size of the land on which the Bayaka can hunt and gather, has taken away a portion of their food supply and forced them into small areas next to settled villages. In these areas, they are often exposed to disease or are exploited for cheap labor by more dominant groups who are higher up in the Central African social hierarchy.

“We feel totally abandoned by the government,” Mr. Maka said [3].

Since they lack the paperwork that would prove their claim on that territory, Maka’s people are left to be squatters on their own land [3].

Read: Desert Farm Grows 17,000 Tons of Food without Soil, Pesticides, Fossil Fuels or Groundwater

What is the Solution?

There have been a few different solutions that have been proposed or implemented, with varying degrees of success. Some areas have been designated as protected wildlife areas, which prohibits any and all human activity. This, however, includes indigenous communities, which forces them into smaller and smaller areas and affects their ability to survive [3].

New regulations from African governments could also be somewhat effective at curbing the illegal timber trade. An example of this is the African nation Gabon. 

Until 2010, Gabon was the number one source of hardwoods. The country then put laws in place that banned the export of uncut logs, which forced companies to purchase wood that had already been cut at local mills. This made it harder for illegally forested wood to be taken, however, the timber industry simply shifted to other nations. 

Stopping logging altogether is also not a viable option, because timber is the largest industry in some areas of the Basin, and stopping it completely would destroy livelihoods [8].

Some environmentalists have proposed the idea of creating “community forests”, in which indigenous peoples living in those areas would work with industries and other local populations to manage remote, rural areas. This approach was used in the Amazon and was given partial credit when deforestation in Brazil dropped by seventy percent between 2004 and 2012 [3].

“There’s so much evidence now that Indigenous peoples manage their environment better than anyone else,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a global Indigenous rights group [3].

What Can You Do?

If you are purchasing flooring and furniture with that ubiquitous “Made in China” sticker on it, you are contributing to the deforestation of the world’s rainforests. While this may not be your intention, it is the insatiable appetite in the United States for cheap lumber that has been the main driving force behind the illegal timber trade in China.

The best thing you can do to combat this is buying products that are made from sustainable sources and to avoid buying products made in China.

“Consumers in the U.S. are buying a lot of cheap furniture that’s made in Asia,” Fuller says. “They could instead buy sustainable alternatives like bamboo furniture or sustainable wood” [8].

If buying more sustainably-produced products is not financially possible for you, another alternative is to buy used products. This way, you are not contributing to the demand for cheap timber. 

While it often feels as though we, as individuals, have little influence over the major problems facing our planet, our collective power as consumers can have a profound impact on the way large corporations operate. If we boycott products that are being made at the detriment of the planet and demand transparency from these massive companies, we can prevent our rainforests from being destroyed.

Keep Reading: Almonds are out. Dairy is a disaster. So what milk should we drink?