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Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Priceless Rush on Timber
Treasure hunters have a romantic reputation. The popular perception is of Spanish doubloons, Ming Dynasty china or stolen gold bullion hidden beneath the sands of a tropical island or deep beneath the ocean. Luke Hunt reports.
However, buccaneers are increasingly hunting for a treasure with a modern day difference – timber. If the economics are right, the returns can be great.
More recently this has been evident on the Thai-Cambodian borders where poachers scouring the jungles for rosewood have lost their lives to landmines and the occasional border patrol on the lookout for people trying to make an illegal crossing.
Rain forest timber has always fetched a mighty price but amid their depletion those prices are heading even higher and this is being felt across the region, particularly on the island of Borneo which is shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
“Someone came up with the idea and it caught on,” said 49-year-old Yapp Ma Fong who casts his eye over a shimmering sea that might contain his fortune. He says luck and speed were key in the economics of his business.
“It really does depend on how fast the logs can be raised from the ocean floor and taken to the saw mill where they are cut and sorted,” he said.
Over the decades thousands of logs slipped out of reach before they could be loaded for export on ships bound for Japanese, European and American markets. Retrieving those logs from river beds and the ocean floor is big business, not unlike the recycling industry in scrap metal, plastics or glass.
The most popular timbers are tropical hardwoods and softwoods favored for a variety of applications.
Perupok is sought by piano makers to make the hammers that strike the piano strings.
Damar minyak was prized for bar tops and ramin for wood paneling in corporate offices. The Japanese organized crime ring, the Yakuza, were ardent admirers of both timbers and their orders required special shipments when cutting of rainforests boomed in the 1980s and 90s.
It was during this period that heavy machinery capable of extracting the world’s largest trees came onto the market and for the first time previously untouched rainforests were felled. The North Borneo Timber Company alone was harvesting 1.2 million cubic metres, about 300,000 logs a year, in the mid-1980s.
Ross Ibbotson, retired forest manager and historian has just completed researching the history of logging in North Borneo for a book.
He said: “If you lost seven or eight logs a load then that would be a lot, you’d hear a scream of rage from the ship’s captain when a log became entangled with the anchor and he couldn’t get rid of it.”
Politicians cowered to the demands of timber companies and reduced the rotation periods between harvests from the rain forests. Under the British a relative small number of trees were earmarked to be taken per acre every 100 years. This was reduced to 40 years in the early post-colonial governments, then rain forests were simply stripped and replaced by rubber and palm oil plantations.
Places like Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau were synonymous with logging and were part of a much wider effort to bilk the environment. Neighboring Sarawak, Indonesian Borneo and islands in the Southern Philippines ensured millions of logs were harvested, a month.
By the mid-1980s the Malaysian state of Sabah was producing more than 12 million cubic metres of timber a year. Now that figure has been reduced sharply to a still sizeable three to four million cubic metres but much of this is secondary forest timber and only used locally, not for export.
This has led to a sharp increase in prices on the international markets for rare timbers.
Lumber varies in price according to species and type. Broadly, logs are valued at between US$1,000 and US$3,000 each, about seven times more than two decades ago and as Ibbotson says, timber prices – like most commodities — are enjoying their highest levels yet.Read more.