Theft in our Forests: Examining Taiwan’s Silent War

Theft in our Forests: Examining Taiwan’s Silent War

. 6 min read

The History of Stolen Forests

For the past few decades, among the highly forested areas in Taiwan, one of the most high-valued natural resources has been at critical risk: timber. Tree poaching, where individuals or small groups take endangered old-growth forest trees to sell to wood carvers illegally, has made Asia, and especially Taiwan, suffer disproportionate forest loss. Approaches to solving this crisis are varied, and Taiwan is having difficulty finding the right solution.

The history of forest conservation and restoration of the island is entwined with its economic development. The yellow cypress, or Hinoki, was the first type of tree poached while Japan occupied Taiwan between 1912 and 1945. During the Japanese colonial period immediately after World War II, timber harvesting peaked, as wood became the critical war material needed for equipment and weapons. Japan soon came to regard Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” as they viewed the country as an important stepping stone to its military expansion. Economic pressure mounted on Taiwan, as Japan aggressively managed the shipment and cutting of its valuable timber: cypress, spruce, and camphor. From 1965 to 1975, an average of 1,552,600 cubic meters, or about 18,000 hectares of forest, were cut annually. This level of harvesting brought about petitions from many Taiwanese citizens, demanding environmental protection. In 1976, this exploitation ceased, as the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) was enacted to counter damage to national ecosystems on forest lands. Since then, Taiwan’s efforts have focused on both preserving and harvesting/reforesting biological diversity. After 1977, Taiwan reduced the annual volume of timber cut to less than 1,000,000 cubic meters; by 1990, about 99 percent of the timber supply was imported to emphasize forest protection. The logging of centennial trees was banned in 1990, with the banning of natural forests following shortly after, in 1991.

Now, Taiwan has over 200 tree species and over 59 percent of its total area is forested land, but they are being threatened. However, as the wood market expands, so does illegal logging and poaching. In Miaoli Country’s Sanyi Township in northwest Taiwan, the “Kingdom of Woodcarving'' has relied heavily on this illegal activity. Home to over 300 wood shops, the stores feed a hungry market for domestic wood art —essential oils drawn from felled trees, life-sized sculptures, and beautiful pieces of burl. Theft of stout camphor trees has become one of the major avenues of wood acquisition in recent years. Collectors and artists crave these unique trees for their sturdy, aromatic wood and their oils, said to have healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine. The Hinoki cypress and red cedar trees are in high demand as well, as they have developed unique wood patterns over the years and can live up to thousands of years old.

The Vicious Game with Mountain Rats

Many of the shopkeepers turn to thieves, also referred to as “shan lao shu” in Mandarin, or “mountain rats,” to acquire the unique woods they need. At these stores, contraband wood is mixed with legally sourced timber, making it hard to trace the origins of the piece. These domestic wood products are sold and advertised openly, as store owners worry little about police intervention. Artists and shopkeepers openly admit that they work with contraband wood and poachers because the police don’t know which shops sell illegal wood.

The thieves themselves have to be much more careful, but there is much to be gained from poaching successfully. Many of the tree poachers are runaway Vietnamese migrant workers, who are simply victims that are hired as foot soldiers. Frank Lin, the director of Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau stated that, in no more than a few hours, a single worker can net 30,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$981), which is already higher than Taiwan’s monthly minimum wage: NT$22,000. This, in itself, makes working this lucrative and risky job enticing. Especially since many migrant workers are crushed under extreme debt levied by third party-job brokers, they are easily swept into the financial proposition of quick money. And those that overhead the poaching operators, such as illegal logging ring leaders, are more than happy to indulge them. However, many migrant workers are unaware of the dangers if caught; first, they are assured deportation, and second, since 2017, they can receive sentences of between five to 20 years in Taiwanese prisons. This speaks to a deeper, more disturbing reality: exploitation of foreign work, underpayment, and a vicious cycle of debt bondage.

Unlicensed loggers still frequent the forested areas of Taiwan, often arrested while making daring escapes. In 2017, 239 arrests were made; in 2016, 244 arrests. On December 26, 2019, 22 arrests were made and over US$3.32 million in timber from protected endemic trees was seized from an illegal logging ring. In April 2018, in the forest area of Chiayi Country, a Vietnamese man died while trying to escape from police attempting to detain him when he was caught on a trip to poach endangered trees. On June 28, 2022, six Vietnamese workers were arrested after they were found with 400 kilograms of old-growth cyprus; and most recently, on August 26, a total of seven people were arrested for illegal logging in state-owned forest areas in Nantou County. Of the seven were four Taiwanese drivers who would transport the other three undocumented Vietnamese migrant workers into the mountains, where they would stay for a week and cut down old-growth trees.

A Cut in the Environment

Taiwan’s valuable old-growth trees hold a massive amount of carbon per hectare and contain rich communities of plants and animals within the habitat. Once the tree is cut, it releases its stores of carbon back into the air, which can trap the heat and increase climate change. In addition, without trees to protect Taiwan’s costs, the ocean's impacts will be greater and dry land will disappear more quickly due to rising sea levels and land subsidence. Due to its location, it is very susceptible to environmental damage. But these trees can not only sequester carbon and blunt coastal winds, but they also dilute and absorb manmade pollution and improve the micro-environmental climate within the forest, and protect nearby crops.

Even further, tree logging degrades the rule of law protecting the forest and fuels more crimes of deforestation. It can create serious social conflicts between the migrants, the government, and local peoples, and can lead to violence and human rights abuses.

A Long-Term Commitment

Illegal tree poaching is still a problem the Taiwanese Government is looking to tackle with an array of solutions. Police and poachers have been locked in vicious cycles of fighting for the forest. Since 1991’s banning of logging, Taiwan has been through several different stages of Forestry Act enforcement to show its commitment to rights against tree poaching. From 1991 to 1993, the department was heavily under-staffed and the Forestry Act was under-enforced. Tree poaching became entrenched in the livelihoods of many, and public criticism sparked. As a response, the Taiwanese government formed the centralized Forest and Natural Reservation Task Force in 2004 with 178 police dispatched at eight bases. Since then, the Taiwanese government has added to the Act. In 2015, the government enacted stiffer sentences with a minimum of six months in prison for poachers. In addition, they increased the fine to up to 10 to 20 times the value of the timber they stole.

Most notably, in 2021, the Taiwanese government established a DNA database for Taiwan cypress and cedar trees to help protect the nation’s forests and to prevent illegal poaching after a four-year collaboration between the MJIB (Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau) and the Forestry Bureau and Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Research Center. Since 2017, they have been collecting over 600 tree samples which are classified as protected species under the Forestry Act. Almost like a fingerprint, the DNA database keeps track of these trees and gives them an identification card. If there is a wood sample confiscated from “mountain rats” during their raids, the database can allow police to tell where illegal logging took place and verify the location; this creates secure evidence that officers can use in court to get a conviction. As it is usually very hard to pinpoint the location of tree poachers, the DNA database is a step forward to crack down on criminal groups and protect the forest.

A New Framework

Taiwan is home to some of the richest and most diverse forests in the world over 4,000 years old. Illegal tree poaching has taken a toll on the precious forests, and Taiwan still suffers from disproportionate forest loss. New, creative solutions such as a DNA database to track cypress and cedar trees have made steps forward, but the problem has yet to be solved. The Taiwanese Government is drawn to harsher forestry legislation, as seen with their multiple revisions to the Forestry Act; however, it poses the question: is this the best method to end the illegal logging in the forests? Does a greater level of law enforcement seem to have a limited deterrence effect on the poachers? Instead of increasing punitive methods—such as increasing time in prison for migrant workers—more empirical studies on behavioral analysis on motivations and decision-making may need to be analyzed.

Smaller, single-case, examples of restorative justice practices are already seen to be quite effective in provinces of Taiwan; for example, in Hsinchu, after a man stole a piece of red cypress, the forestry bureau, police, the prosecutor, and the local aborigines stressed the significance of the timber, resulting in the man returning his piece to the original tree. These efforts can help break vicious cycles of theft.

In addition, there should not only be more restorative justice approaches, but also an in-depth look at labor implications, environmental damage, and, most importantly, migrant exploitation. Blanket bans seem not to be the answer: instead, information and documentation made available to the public about old-growth forest; or educational facilities and support programs for young migrant workers might serve useful. Through these potential methods and analyses, Taiwan may be able to save its forests.