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OCTOBER 13, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 40 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Thieves' Wood of Choice
Illegally logged narra often turns up in affluent homes
By PETER FREDENBURG

ALSO:
Going Against the Grain: A priest's fight against illegal logging in a Philippine timber town puts him in the firing line
Blowing Their Top: Greens react angrily as Japan ups the ante in the whale-hunt row

Narra is the wood of choice for tree thieves. Like teak, it is prized for its strength, weight and working quality — the fine grain, for example, allows the wood to be polished to a high shine. Its rich color (red or rose, often variegated with yellow) makes the hardwood a particularly attractive material for furniture, wall panels and flooring.

Although the Philippines once exported as much as 3,000 tons of narra a year, overseas sales have been illegal since 1987 when officials realized the precious species was under threat. Nonetheless, conservationists believe there is considerable smuggling from the coast of Isabela province. The narra tree (Pterocarpus indicus) is now protected by a nationwide ban on cutting. That, however, has not dampened the market in the prized wood. Wealthy and influential Filipinos are among the biggest buyers of illegal narra. Ban or no ban, the status-symbol wood is regarded as an integral part of a well-appointed home. Major furniture manufacturers and producers of such components as doors and windows are also important users. Small furniture makers face the greatest difficulty securing supplies.

There are exceptions to the logging prohibition under various "community forestry" permits issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. These often become useful cover for the trade in poached timber. Some traders make the most of their permits by mixing contraband with legally felled wood, or by attaching old documentation to new, clandestinely acquired stock. Legal sales of intercepted timber offer another loophole for unscrupulous dealers

In Manila, the unprocessed hardwood is sold for between 80 pesos to 120 pesos ($1.70 to $2.60) per boardfoot (1 foot x 1 foot x 1 inch). But prices vary considerably, depending on source (narra from the Sierra Madres fetches higher prices than that from Cordilleras Central, for example), texture, distance from the supply — and negotiating skills. Size matters too. The wider and longer the piece, the more it fetches.

Since the mid-1980s, conservation-minded organizations like the Cagayan Valley Chamber of Furniture Producers Association have championed the use of gmelina (Gmelina arborea). A fast-growing tree that is easily farmed, gmelina yields an attractive blond hardwood. Gmelina costs as little as a sixth the price of narra and is readily available. But furniture made from the wood has little export potential because it dries unevenly in the kiln. Gmelina is also less durable. Still, the blondwood has gained considerable popularity in recent years, though not among the affluent. Perhaps rebranding gmelina as gem wood might do the trick.

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