HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Russian birch wood has continued to flow to American consumers, disguised as Asian products, despite U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, according to a new report.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit watchdog group based in Britain, has found that most birch products currently exported from Vietnam to the United States come from Russia. According to Vietnamese customs data, about 40,000 cubic meters of birch wood are transported from Russia every month and from China to Vietnam, where it is assembled into furniture and plywood.

These chairs and bed frames are ending up on the shelves of major US retailers, the EIA said in a report, which was shared exclusively with The Washington Post.

The group’s investigators spoke to five Chinese companies representing 60% of China’s birch veneer exports to Vietnam and concluded that more than 90% of their birch comes from Russia. A Chinese lumber mill owner told the group that all birch used by his company comes from Russia but is repackaged in China and re-exported to Vietnam with China as the country of origin.

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“They [American importers] do not follow the sources of the original materials,” the official told the EIA. “We did this all the time.”

In June, Russia’s Federal Forest Management Agency said the country’s timber industry had not been significantly affected by the sanctions.

“Russia’s forest industry complex has already been oriented towards friendly markets, and where the restrictions have appeared, it has already partially realigned,” Pavel Chashchin, head of the agency, told Tass, a news outlet. state media. “The process of establishing new export channels will continue.”

In construction, birch harvested from the vast forests of Russia has long been considered the best source of plywood – a material used in floors, ceilings and partitions, as well as for decorative purposes on elements such as doors and cabinets.

Before the invasion of Ukraine, the United States imported hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of birch plywood from Russia each year, according to trade data. Driven by strong demand, those imports surged in the early months of 2022 before changing course in April, when the Biden administration raised tariffs on Russian birch from 10% to 50%. From March to April, even as direct U.S. imports of Russian birch fell, imports of birch plywood from Vietnam increased 206%, said the Decorative Hardwoods Association, which represents U.S. hardwood industries.

Ngo Sy Hoai, vice president of the Vietnam Wood and Forest Products Association, a nongovernmental trade organization in Vietnam, did not respond to questions about where companies source birch, saying only that “Vietnamese plywood producers may import certain volumes of birch wood from various sources of plywood sheathing.

Phuc Xuan To, a senior policy analyst at Forest Trends who has studied Vietnam’s timber industry for years, confirmed the EIA’s findings. Imports of sawn birch from China to Vietnam increased in the first half of this year, and it is highly likely that the birch originated from Russia, To said.

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Russian birch is also appearing under misleading labels in markets outside the United States, according to advocacy groups. UK companies have recently received more birch supplies “from the Far East”, said Timber Development UK, which represents companies throughout Britain’s timber supply chain.

“Since birch forests are concentrated in northern Russia and Eurasia; it is almost certain that the birch in the plywood on offer actually originated in Russia,” the trade association said in a statement warning members against UK sanctions.

While China also exports birch, the EIA said the world’s largest traders largely prefer Russian birch, which is considered more consistent and durable.

In March, Earthsight, another British monitoring group, reported that some of Russia’s biggest logging companies are owned by oligarchs with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Mining magnate Alexei Mordashov, who was blacklisted by the European Union in March, has major assets in Sveza, one of Russia’s biggest exporters of birch plywood, Earthsight said. While Sveza’s direct exports to Europe have dwindled since the start of the year, company executives recently told reporters it was actively shifting sourcing to Asia and Africa. “I have absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension,” Mordashov said in a statement in April.

The family of telecommunications billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov controls Sistema, the parent company of Segezha, a logging company that exports to the European Union and the United States. In April, after being sanctioned by Britain, Yevtushenkov relinquished shareholder control of conglomerate Sistema by transferring 10% of the assets to his son. The Segezha Group issued a statement around the same time stating that it did not consider itself affected by the UK sanctions. “The Segezha Group is continuing its activities as usual,” the statement said.

Vietnam has had strong political, economic and defense ties with Russia since Soviet times. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, Vietnam was among 35 countries that abstained in the vote condemning Russia for its attack on Ukraine.

Vietnam’s sharp rise in exports at a time of plummeting Russian supply has caught the attention of the EIA, which has been monitoring the relocation of Chinese manufacturers to Vietnam in recent years, said analyst Alex Bloom. agency.

“We were well aware from previous investigations that huge amounts of Russian wood, especially birch, are used in Chinese factories for exported plywood,” she said. “After U.S. anti-dumping tariffs take effect on Chinese hardwood plywood [in 2017]many of these Chinese factories migrated to Vietnam to avoid these tariffs.

Thomas Chung, an EIA lawyer who focuses on Vietnam, said the repackaging of birch described by Chinese companies not only violates US trade rules and laws, but could also be considered illegal under the Vietnamese timber legality assurance system.

“Knowing the origin of a wood product is necessary as part of a due diligence process when importing wood or wood products into Vietnam,” he said. “This means that even when intermediate markets are used, the origin must be known. Any name change should be considered illegal.