Chinese companies buy timber in large quantities in our country. Local sawmills can’t compete with the high prices they pay. “Our raw materials will run out in two years.”
The Chinese buy all the timber here. If the Belgian authorities do not intervene quickly, we will be without raw materials in a couple of years and we will be a pub without beer. Mark Bellemann is responsible for the Bellemann sawmill in Bourse, founded by his great-grandfather in 1848. The company specializes in selecting, purchasing, measuring, transporting and sawing oak for the Belgian furniture and parquet industry, among other things. He just came from a general wood sale but didn’t buy anything. very expensive. He says he has never experienced what’s going on at lumber auctions now.
Chinese companies have been buying timber in our country for several years, but now their strength is running out. For oak, they offer 40 to 50 percent more than the current price. Prices we cannot afford. They even buy young oaks and don’t wait for the trees to mature, which takes several decades. Then the wood is transported in China – sea transportation is cheap in this direction. There they are processed with dirty cheap wages – the worker receives 120 euros per month. In some cases, wood comes back here as a finished product. We are treated like a developing country. Even in Africa, it is no longer allowed to buy oak for export without local processing. Our country still has dozens of sawmills of deciduous trees. If nothing happens, many of them threaten to overturn.
According to Peleman, urgent measures must be taken to counter the “theft of Chinese resources,” as he calls it. When a sawmill in France went bankrupt sometime almost every day because Chinese companies bought timber in bulk, the government made fixed supply contracts for French sawmills. Germany has taken precautionary measures. China banned oak cutting. Therefore, Chinese timber traders are obliged to supply themselves abroad.
At auction, the Chinese bid 40 to 50 percent more than the current price of oak.
According to Bellemann, there is little enthusiasm for the problem in Belgium. The fact that we have five governments does not make it easier. The problem is more acute in Wallonia, where most of the forests are located. Moreover, many Walloon municipalities are short of money and are happy to sell trees at exorbitant Chinese prices. You don’t hear the private woodland owners complain either. Fortunately, I bought oak woods in Chimay 15 years ago and have a buffer zone. But many sawmills do not have it.
Trade with China is carried out by Belgian merchants. The two big ones are ITS Wood in Namur and Antwerp manochar. Manuchar is a global chemical trading and distribution company, but also active in the international trade of steel, plastics, paper and wood. It sold 4.2 million tons of raw materials last year, achieved a turnover of 1.5 billion dollars, and has 450,000 square meters of warehouse. It is owned by Ackermans & van Haaren, the Maas family and management.
The situation also worries Fedustria, the Federation of Furniture Industry and Wood Processing. Philippe de Jaeger: The Chinese buy in such large quantities that there is hardly any wood left for the Belgian timber merchants and sawmills. At first, the Chinese bought mainly hardwoods – oak, beech, poplar – recently they also bought spruce. Even spruce that was affected by a printing press or bark beetle. This is for wood packaging.
François de Mersmann, Secretary General of the Timber Union, which represents sawmills and forestry operators, estimates that 80 percent of all hardwoods in our country this year were sold to timber dealers working on behalf of Chinese customers. Sometimes they buy 80 percent of what is offered at public auctions. This means that some qualities of some trees – especially oak – are almost available in the local market.
De Meersman doesn’t know where this growing Chinese buying interest is coming from. It is said that Chinese buyers receive subsidies from the Chinese government to purchase timber around the world. But we have no proof. It is estimated that 10 percent of the trees they buy here have been brought back to Europe as finished products, such as parquet and furniture. De Geiger agrees that “there is a mechanism behind this”. But nothing illegal happened. The European market is free.
De Meersman expects the problem to become more acute now that Russia has decided to restrict the export of coniferous timber from the country from January 1. China imports a lot of wood from Russia. If that disappears, it may import more from Europe and Africa. If the problem is not resolved within six months, I’m afraid Belgian sawmills will go bankrupt. “
According to a study conducted by the Timber Consortium, the number of sawmills in our country has decreased from 313 to 95 in the past 30 years. Ten years ago they were still processing 3.7 million m3 of roundwood – 3.3 million m3 of conifers and 370.00 m3 of hardwood. Now 2.9 million cubic meters – 2.7 million coniferous wood and 217,000 deciduous wood. Two-thirds of the hardwoods are sawn in Flanders. 93 percent of Wallonia’s coniferous wood is processed.
The Fedustria Timber Federation and the Timber Federation raised the “Chinese problem” with the Belgian governments and Europe. De Jaeger: Europe says it has no leverage. But the Belgian industry here is seriously disadvantaged. Rules could be introduced requiring the first processing of roundwood to take place first in Europe. One can control alleged government aid or impose export restrictions. France did it for the oak.
What if this has an effect on the price of wood for the consumer? Sawmills and the processing industry — furniture manufacturers and parquet producers — are particularly affected, says de Jaeger. “The high price of wood — plus 20 to 30 percent, depending on the wood — has many causes: Covid, product shortages, a regeneration drive, and high transportation costs. It’s not just China. We see the balance between demand and supply of timber recovering.
A study by Bouwunie showed that almost all carpenters and interior builders experience problems with delivery time and high product prices. This mainly concerns construction wood, sheet materials, OSB, MDF, chipboard, laminate, furniture fittings, insulation and window profiles, as well as silicone, adhesives, sanitary appliances. A fifth says they pass on the price increases to the customer. Eight out of ten report that their projects are delayed due to these problems, an average of six weeks. Almost everyone has a lot of work. Half of them are looking for additional workers.
“The Chinese are buying raw materials everywhere and they are getting better,” says Peleman. This has a general effect. I wonder if people are aware of this. If we are not careful, we are headed for disaster.
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