Illegal Logging and Impotent Government in Madagascar’s Northeast
In the midst of cyclone season, a ‘dead’ period for tourism to Madagascar’s east coast, Vohémar, a sleepy town dominated by the vanilla trade, is
abuzz. Vanilla prices have hardly ever been lower, but the hotels are full and the port is busy. “This afternoon, it was like a 4 wheel drive show in
front of the Direction Regionale des Eaux & Forets,” one source wrote in an email on November 29th: “Many new 4×4, latest model, new plane at the
airport, Chinese everywhere.”
Loggers in Madagascar daily plunder up to $460,000 of precious woods from national parks in the country’s northeast, according to a jointreport of EIA and Global Witness published two weeks ago. While some
illegal logging has taken place in the SAVA region almost continuously for more than a decade, the activity has sharply escalated in 2009. Low vanilla
prices have gutted the local economy and timber traders have seized upon the combination of weak government and high demand abroad to extract large
quantities of rosewood from protected areas in the region: Masoala and Marojejy National Parks as well as the Mananara Biosphere Reserve.
The operations are initiated by a small group of exporters known in Madagascar as the ” Timber Barons” and financed with advance payments from Chinese buyers and by loans from
several international banks with branches in Antananarivo. The exporters rely on regional networks of collectors and and subcollectors who are
responsible for obtaining the wood and overseeing its transport from the forest to major port. The actual logging and transport is done by local young
men who work for about five dollars a day cutting and dragging logs from remote areas in the forest with only hand axes and rope–backbreaking work
that brings them no more than 2% of the export value of the wood they cut. The value of one three-meter rosewood log, for instance, can easily surpass Madagascar’s per-capita GDP. Even so, EIA/GW investigators
spoke to a village head near Masoala who estimated that roughly half of the people involved in actual logging there–between 500 and 1000 workers–had
not been paid.
The trade is dominated by some of Madagascar’s wealthiest citizens, who have strong influence on regional politics–Jeannot Ranjanoro, president of the
National Group of Vanilla Exporters; Roger Thunam, another major exporter; Eugene Sam Som Miock, Madagascar’s largest leechee exporter; Jean Paul
Rakoto, who has ties to former President Didier Ratsiraka; and Martin Bematana, a former member of parliament. The EIA/GW report estimates that up to
200 rosewood trees are now being felled each day by these traders who will sell most of the wood to buyers in China. Rosewood currently fetches upwards
of $3000 per cubic meter, roughly ten times the value of oak or maple. To date, according to a separate paper just published in the journal, Madagascar Conservation & Development, some 620 containers of rosewood with a total value of over $130 million have left Madagascar this year.
“Most of these people have been in the business for a long time–at least, 10, 20 years,” said Adam Khedouri of the EIA, who participated in the
investigation. But “rosewood is relatively new,” he added, pointing to the rising Chinese middle class and their taste for “faux-imperial style”
furniture. Of the various economic activities in SAVA, timber trading is by far the most lucrative. “One way it was described to me is that the people
who are involved in exporting vanilla are really wood traders,” Khedouri explained. Vanilla is the more reliable market, timber is kind of hit or miss,
so you need to have some financing available to send people into the forest, pay for the equipment, and buy fuel. They’re complementary businesses.”
Though Malagasy law clearly prohibits the extraction of precious woods from protected areas, a web of contradictory ‘ministerial orders’ woven over the
past decade has obscured the issue. Timber traders in SAVA have grown used to the ebb and flow of enforcement and feasibility of logging there, and
have even used the shifting political tides to justify their activities. In an interview with one of Madagascar’s biggest dailies last
March, trader Jean Pierre Laisoa blamed the government for ‘confusion’ that resulted in the seizure of illegal rosewood in Antalaha: “The problem is
that the state’s policies on precious woods are not all that clear.”
In 2000, the government stopped issuing new logging permits in the northeast and banned the export of raw timber. Four years later, in an episode that
demonstrates timber traders’ ability to control the political and economic context in which they operate, an exception was made for trees that had
fallen during the passage of Cyclone Gafilo.
Foresters like Sylvain Velomera, former director of Marojejy National Park, are skeptical that cyclones damage rosewood and ebony trees at all: “it’s
only a justification to allow cutting of rosewood, since cyclones do not blow over rosewood, only papaya and coconut and other small vulnerable trees.”
Furthermore, when the government lifted the export ban after the cyclone, it did so without prior assessment of cyclone-damaged trees or of existing
lumber inventories. As a result, the orders restricting logging to fallen trees were more or less meaningless. In fact, they provided good cover for
extensive logging inside national parks.
Temporary camp set up by wood cutters in Masoala National Park.
Loggers further capitalized on government leniency by using authorization forms with “titles not found in any legal text,” the EIA/GW report says,
namely, “permis de ramassage,” and “permis de carbonisation” (‘collection permit’ and ‘carbonization permit,’ respectively): While these forms may have
been issued by different agencies of the Malagasy government, they are not supported by Malagasy law. In the aftermath of Cyclone Gafilo, as timber
traders exported large quantities of officially recognized “damaged wood,” they replenished existing stock with illicit lumber from their
subcollectors. As a general rule, the EIA’s Andrea Johnson told me, logging activities in SAVA are poorly documented–logging camps, logs, and stumps,
are all unmarked and unnumbered, making it nearly impossible ascertain the origin and legality of particular “bola-bolas” (logs) once several streams
of wood have mingled with standing inventory in the same supply chain. It is standard practice for timber traders in the northeast to over-report
cyclone damage and existing inventory, and to neglect to mark logs or properly document their logging operations, all of which has enabled them to
harvest and export wood from the national parks under the guise of legality.
The logistical obstacles to controlling or even tracking the flow of illicit timber from the forest to the road are tremendous. SAVA is a region with
“no infrastructure to speak of,” as Khedouri put it, and logging operations there are both primitive and concentrated in increasingly remote areas. Recent surveys around the perimeter of Marojejy National Park found next to no
trees of the genus Dalbergia, which includes those rosewoods and palissanders targeted by loggers. In 2007, rangers in Masoala found that more
than two thirds of locally logged rosewood came from inside the Park. “The reason they’re going into the park at all is that all the low-hanging fruit
has been picked,” Khedouri explained. “So much of those rare species–and they’re a lot rarer now than they were 10 years ago–most of the big trees
are in hard-to-reach places. These guys are going two or three days’ walk into the forest to find logs.”
From there, logs are dragged through the forest to the nearest waterway and transported by raft to villages accessible by road. From here on,
enforcement should be much simpler: most of the wood travels along one stretch of highway connecting Vohémar to Antalaha. But when EIA/GW
investigators encountered trucks transporting rosewood logs to port in August, not a single driver could produce relevant authorizations to transport
lumber. Along this road, Khedouri wrote in an email, “there is a regular police and gendarme presence, with numerous checkpoints and patrols; the issue
is one of easily corrupted local law enforcement agents.”
Precious hardwood logs are tied together with lianas and floated down rivers on rafts made from lighter species as trees. 5-6 lighter logs are needed to float each rosewood log, exacerbating the impact of rosewood extraction.
Corruption has undermined enforcement in every area of government. After Cyclone Gafilo, temporary permits to export were initially intended to last
less than a month. But the export ban on raw lumber was not reinstated until October 2005, more than a year after the storm. As has been the pattern
before and since, timber traders responded with heavy government lobbying, and were rewarded in February 2006 with a memo authorizing the export of
existing stocks of “wood from the 2004 cyclone,” “following the grievances of the operators and exporters”–nearly two years after the fact.
“That text marks the point where the problems began,” one former forestry official told EIA/GW’s investigators. It opened the door to false
“inventories of wood stock, inventories that were changed on a daily basis,” said the official, one-time Directeur Général des Forêts
Monique Andriamananoro-Radiharisoa. Export authorizations were also issued after cyclones in 2006 and 2007, enabling timber traders to stockpile vast
quantities of lumber both in legal depots and in undisclosed locations around the ports of Vohémar and Antalaha.
With so much wood in depots, “there is big pressure on the Ministry [Ministère de l’Environnement et des Forêts] to authorize the export of
timber,” said Reiner Tegtmeyer of Global Witness. “And they do,” he said, but always for limited periods of time. Thus, the timber trade takes the
shape of large waves of export separated by periods of stricter control. Demand builds while the export ban is enforced, until, during periods of slack
enforcement, traders are able to unload massive quantities of wood quickly and at a high price. “In the current situation,” Khedouri explained,
“there’s a big gap between when the wood is cut and when it’s allowed to be exported.”
The illicit nature of the trade creates some obstacles for the Timber Barons–the difficulty of financing further logging with large stocks being held
at port, for instance, or the uncertainty of the legal repercussions they may face. But this cycle of instability also brings them certain benefits: a
desperate workforce, government officials susceptible to bribes, the disappearance of logging quotas and requirements for documentation, and, for a
time, incredibly high prices on the international market.
Twice so far this year, the government has granted exceptional authorizations to export, in the form of “ministerial orders,” to traders willing to pay
a ‘fine’ of 72 million Ariary ($35,500 USD) per container of illegal lumber. But according to Johnson, Director of Forest Campaigns for the EIA,
Malagasy law calls for more than simply levying a fine. In fact it calls for confiscating illicitly harvested wood altogether. This provision, as well
as those that prohibit logging in national parks and the export of raw precious woods, take clear legal precedence over ministerial orders. With the
signatures of high-ranking government officials, however, these “exceptional authorizations” lend a pretext of legality to an arrangement that appears
to be nothing more than a standardized bribery scheme.
Living rainforest hardwoods in Madagascar.
It is worth noting that there is even a pretext distinguishing these authorizations from what Khedouri called the “run-of-the-mill bribery” taking
place at lower levels. “I wouldn’t even characterize this as a bribe–what you’ve got is a cash-strapped government trying to extract revenue any way
it can. I’m sure that certain officials will be taking advantage of the large amounts of money coming into the treasury. But there is something
legitimate to it.”
“The big issue is that the present government is unable to exercise control of that part of the country,” Khedouri said of the logging crisis. Current
President Andry Rajoelina came to power in March by means of a coup that prompted foreign donors to suspend nearly all aid to Madagascar. Until this
year, foreign aid comprised 70% of the government’s operating budget. Now, having ousted his predecessor, Rajoelina presides over a government that is
essentially without funding. The Ministère de L’Environnement et des Forêts, for instance, is restricted to 10% its usual size.
Still, loggers have met nominal resistance from Rajoelina’s government. On April 18th, authorities closed the port of Vohémar to international
trade in response to the global outcry about the logging crisis. But on the 19th, “Three [timber traders] hired a plane, went to the capital, and went
to see the prime minister,” said Tegtmeyer. “The next day the port was open.”
Even if the political will to put an end to illegal logging existed at the highest levels of government–and it does not (“The Prime Minister, at
least, seems to be bought,” Tegtmeyer told me)–the effort would be hampered by the twin problems of decentralization and insolvency, particularly when
they intersect in the person of provincial bureaucrats.
Of a half dozen cases recently brought against timber traders in SAVA, only two have resulted in guilty verdicts. Of those, one (against Thu Nam) was
later settled out of court, and the other (against Ranjanoro) is currently under appeal. In several others, the court found “that the relevant Forestry
Administration official had not properly complied with forest control regulations,” according to the EIA/GW report, resulting in an aquittal. This
presumably means that the relevant official had simply succumbed to bribery. These verdicts are tantamount to acquitting a bank robber because he’d
obtained the cooperation of the police officer guarding the vault. Another case currently pending appeal implicates more than thirty people. Of these,
roughly half are associated with the operating side of illegal logging–traders, transporters, collectors–and the rest are government officials
accused of abetting it, including 10 MEF officials and two customs agents. “We’ve heard bad things about the judicial system in that part of the
country,” Khedouri said. “Those people are very susceptible to local pressure.”
Park rangers in Marojejy who attempted to resist loggers more directly this past April were threatened with violence and ultimately forced to abandon
their posts: the lawlessness eventually resulted in the closure of the Park for more than a month. Politicians who have tried to fight illegal logging
have faced a similar fate. Dominique Chan, mayor of Mananara Nord (near the Mananara Biosphere Preserve), explained the situation there in a September
25th newspaper article: “Illicit logs circulate in plain view of everyone, and no one
dares to stop it– not the local, district, or regional authorities, nor even the police…I myself and my family have been targeted with death threats
and there was a kidnapping attempt on my children. I tried to educate the population through radio shows with the goal of creating a surveillance
committee–that didn’t please the illegal loggers one bit.”
The EIA/GW team initially came to Madagascar at the behest of the Director of Madagascar National Parks, an agency that Khedouri described as being
“insulated from the workings of the government,” largely because they are funded and operated in partnership with institutions in the US and Germany.
Through the intervention of then-Minister of Environment and Forests Mariot Rakatovao, Khedouri and Tegtmeyer were granted free access to relevant
legal documents and high-level government personnel, and supported throughout their field investigation by staff from government forestry agencies.
Overall, they benefited from a startling degree of cooperation from a government that, by all accounts, is strongly implicated in the activities they
hoped to investigate. How could this be? According to Tegtmeyer, the internal divisions apparent in the government’s treatment of illegal logging stem
from the competing influences of 1) the timber traders themselves and 2) western governments and donor institutions, both of whom could potentially
improve the financial sorts of Rajoelina’s “Haute Autorité de Transition,” now rendered impotent by lack of funds.
Boats carrying illegally harvested rosewood in Antongil Bay, Madagascar in October 2009.
Rosewood logs on a beach in Maroantsetra, Madagascar. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.
In Antananarivo, Tegtmeyer and Khedouri met with high-ranking officials from the ministries of Territories and of Finance and the Minister of the
Environment and Forests, and learned of the most recent “exceptional authorization” for the export of precious woods. Interministerial Order 38244,
issued on September 21, allots up to 25 containers of rosewood to each of 13 timber traders who are authorized to continue operating beyond April
30th–the end date fixed in the previous “exceptional authorization.”
“They are desperate to get funds,” Tegtmeyer explained of Madagascar’s central government in a recent email. “They are starved for international
financial assistance in the wake of the political crisis.”
“At the same time,” he said, “there’s pressure from the timber barons–they might even be being bought…and pressure from the international
community.” Of then-Minister Rakatovao’s cooperation with the investigation, Tegtmeyer explained, “I think he just gave in because they have to prove
to the international community that they are doing everything to improve governance.” At the same time, vulnerability to pressure from the Timber
Barons may have been one reason Rakatovao was asked to step down prematurely, and that a Colonel from the army–someone more insulated from the timber
trade–was chosen as his successor. Some high-ranking officials have been genuinely dismayed by the logging crisis,
But it is clear that the MEF depends on more than the good will of the Minister to curb illegal logging. Effective enforcement would require the
dedication and cooperation of officials locally and in the capital. “MEF is decentralized in the region,” Khedouri said, “even though they technically
report to the central authority in Tana. So there’s a ‘chef de region’ in SAVA who gives day-to-day orders, and his objectives might be in conflict
with what the central authority wants.”
According to Tegtmeyer, “the low-level [officials] are probably more interested in letting stuff go the way it is because they make the money [from
bribes].” But this split is not uniform: “there are a number of people at higher levels who are involved in the timber trade,” Khedouri said. In many
instances, he explained, “Civil servants have stayed in place, but they’ve been hamstrung by political appointments at higher levels –the park service
more than anything.”
Illegal rosewood logging in northeastern Madagascar.
Rosewood. Photo by Erik Patel.
This charge can be leveled at the previous administration as well. In May of 2007, 5000 confiscated rosewood logs were stored briefly at the Presidential Palace outside Antananarivo (at Iavoloha) before disappearing mysteriously and showing up in the hands of Jean Pierre Laisoa, who has consistently denied wrongdoing or involvement in government corruption. Most recently, in October, raids in the capital uncovered rosewood hidden at the headquarters of Tiko, a company owned by former president Ravalomanana.
Since the coup last March, the government may be broken, but it is also broke. Insufficient funding is one of the main barriers to addressing illegal logging in SAVA–to properly staff national parks, deploy additional security, and adequately compensate bureaucrats so as to stave off corruption and enforce forestry laws. Absent legitimate sources of income for government personnel and for the whole, illegal logging is also one of the only industries–criminal or not–that has generated a significant amount of revenue since Rajoelina came to power. As a result, his administration has adopted the understandable but oxymoronic practice of using revenue from illegal logging to fund policing and reforestation efforts: The $35,500 USD per container which gave traders the green light to export illegal lumber will now be redirected to fund the Task Force responsible for fighting illegal logging. Here, then, is the Catch 22 of the logging crisis in Madagascar: how can we fund proper enforcement when the failure to enforce pays so well?
The loggers and timber traders suffer from none of the contradictions or the lack of coordination that so plague the Malagasy government. “Our
impression is that this group of traders in Antalaha,” Khedouri said, referring to the Timber Barons, “is relatively autonomous and apolitical–in the
sense that they’re fine with anyone will allow the trading to continue.”
Illegal rosewood logging in Masoala National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
They met with one of the traders, Roger Thu Nam, at a hotel near the Presidential Palace in Antananarivo (there are two). “These guys are often in
Tana,” Tegtmeyer explained, “and you can see why.” Nearby, in Behoririka, is a “new quarter with hundreds of Chinese businessmen,” he said. According
to the EIA/GW report, logging operations in the northeast are funded to a large extent with capital from a network of Chinese importers based in
Antananarivo. These importers are part of a recently established expatriate community who have immigrated to Madagascar in the past several years and
many of whom already hold Malagasy passports. “You can pretty much buy a Malagasy passport nowadays,” Khedouri told me. According to the local press, this is a trend begun by the Prime Minister under
Ravalomanana, who “had a lucrative business selling passports to Chinese immigrants” for 500,000 Ariary a head ($2500 USD).
Importers generate capital by selling household and electronic goods from China; rather than repatriating the proceeds, they divert a share of the cash
to finance the timber purchases of their compatriots in the northeast. In October, the Madagascar Tribune reported that many importers use the cover of artificial
customs declarations to downplay the value of goods they import as well as under-reporting their actual sales revenue, thereby allowing them to funnel
money into the illicit timber trade unnoticed.
In October and November, some 170 containers of rosewood remained blocked at Vohémar for weeks on end, awaiting payment of the $35,500 ‘fine’ for
each container. On November 28th, according to a source in Sambava, “small planes landed in Sambava. They unloaded several heavy boxes: cash, only
cash…This money comes from Tana… Cash from the new Chinese community,” he called it, “having their own bank-like system.” Khedouri was unsurprised
by this account, citing the need for timber traders to cover the ongoing costs of logging operations while so much valuable wood was blocked at port.
“There’s just not that much liquidity in that part of the country,” he said.
Exporting illegal lumber depends not just on a ‘bank-like system’ but on actual banks–some of the largest in the world. Timber traders typically
receive down payments amounting to as much as half of the total sale from buyers abroad, with the remainder financed by Malagasy branches of
international banks. Of this, according to documents obtained by EIA/GW investigators, Bank of Africa and Société Générale (#43 on
Forbes Fortune 500 List) each financed roughly half of declared exports from SAVA in 2009, while recent reports from local sources suggest that
Crédit Lyonnais has been a player as well. All three of these banks are at least partially owned by the French government. Bank of Africa is a
group of banks clustered thirteen African countries whose shareholders include the governments of several African countries as well as FMO, the Dutch
government-controlled development bank.
Rosewood in Maroantsetra
Boat carrying rosewood near Maroantsetra. Photos by Rhett A. Butler
Malagasy law requires exporters to repatriate income generated abroad within six months. Banks that provide the initial financing for export are
responsible for keeping records as to the nature and value of the merchandise. Failure to comply subjects exporters to fines that can reach 100% of the
value of export goods. “But it doesn’t appear that there’s any oversight going on,” Khedouri said. The agency responsible for monitoring exports, the
Finance Ministry’s Service de Change, is both delinquent and impotent–delinquent in that it fails to obtain adequate export records from the
banks charged with furnishing them, and impotent because it lacks the teeth to freeze assets or enforce mandated fines in the event of irregularities.
One official at the Service told the EIA/GW team that the fines are widely considered “laughable.” In 2009, for instance, the banks that
financed the export of more than $100,000,000 of rosewood from SAVA did not report a single container of precious woods in their export records. On
their end, according to the EIA/GW report, the Service lacks any system to catalogue or track those export records it does receive from banks,
opening the door wide to would be money launderers. Given the wide discrepancy between Malagasy export records and Chinese import records, the report
notes, it seems likely that this is a common practice.
Customs and shipping documents are similarly lax. Containers on their way from Madagascar to China are likely to stop in at least two countries on the
way. The ports at Vohémar and Antalaha, where most precious wood is shipped, cannot accommodate the large container ships that make the trip to
Asia. Though shipments of lumber may change hands in the Comoros, Mauritius or Malaysia, cargo manifests routinely leave out these intermediary stops
and list only the shipment’s final destination in China. As a result, it is nearly impossible for customs officials to know which shipping company will
deliver the cargo to its final destination, or to recall illegally exported timber once it has left port. This has happened only once recently, when
The Lea, docked in Mauritius was required to return to Madagascar to pay applicable export fines on 12 containers of rosewood. This accomplished, The
Lea was allowed to leave again, cargo untouched.
These pictures show CMA CMG Delmas, a French shipping company, is facilitating the destruction of Madagascar’s rainforests. Photos taken in Vohémar port, Madagascar.
According to local sources, four shipping companies have transported rosewood from Madagascar this year–United Africa Feeder Line (UAFL, based in
Mauritius) and affiliate Spanfreight, Safmarine, and Delmas (a Belgian subsidiary of French shipping giant CMA-CGM). Three of these have agreed to stop
shipping rosewood following criticisms from international conservation groups, but the fourth, Delmas, continues to ship illegally logged precious
woods in large quantities. Though Delmas denies any wrongdoing, a search of their website reveals no routing information for the Consistence and the
Lea, two of their ships reported to have transported rosewood recently. Following the publication of the EIA/GW report, Tegtmeyer wrote to Delmas to
ask them to stop abetting the illegal timber trade by transporting rosewood. Delmas answered Tegtmeyer’s allegations in a letter to other conservation
groups by insisting they had the authorization of the Minister of Environment and Forests. But Khedouri said that Delmas has “been given pretty clear
evidence that what they’re transporting–the merchandise itself is of illegal origin.” Delmas did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
The vast majority of precious woods that leave Madagascar are bound for a few cities in Southern China: Hong Kong, Dalian, Shanghai, Ganzhou. Between
1998 and 2008, Chinese imports of tropical wood nearly quadrupled, to 45 million
cubic meters annually, making it by far the world’s largest consumer of tropical timber. Dr. William Laurance, a researcher at the Smithsonian, wrote
in a letter to the journal Science last year that he believes over half of these imports are sourced illegally.
In the U.S., a century of amendments have gradually strengthened the Lacey Act, introduced in 1900 to fight poaching and interstate trafficking of
wildlife. It is now a federal crime to illegally purchase, transport, sell, or possess endangered animals and plants from anywhere in the world. The
legislation is some of the world’s most stringent, and the Lacey Act is viewed as a model for due diligence legislation that may soon take hold in the
EU. Even so, enforcement around illegal wood products is still in its infancy. (Only last month, there was a sting against Gibson guitars
involving rosewood from Madagascar.)
There are “not presently any laws in China” that require importers to ascertain the origin and legality of their source materials, Khedouri said. In
2007, the US and China concluded a Memorandum of Understanding on
illegal logging and the timber trade. It called for the two countries to share information on imports and exports and pursue joint enforcement
strategies but little has been done as a result.
It’s at the “point of import,” Khedouri said, that “there’s got to to be some due diligence to determine the origin. If you know that you’re importing
a particular species of rosewood, then you’ve got to do due diligence and find out your risk [of trafficking in illegal wood].” Currently, however, “I
can say explicitly that there are importers in China who have sent people to Madagascar who are sitting in rosewood logging camps in national parks
negotiating prices, so there’s not even a pretense of that.”
So it’s as a grain of sawdust in a woodshop that containers of Madagascar’s endemic rosewoods–Dalbergia baronii, louveli, maritima–enter China’s mammoth and bustling wood marketplace. Of the initial buyers, Khedouri said, “these are mostly small general trading
companies. They’re really sort of conduits for sourcing goods from here or there.” The wood is bought and resold in small lots close to port as it fans
out across a nation of artisan furniture makers. Much of the growth in the international rosewood market is due to the growth of the Chinese middle
class over the past five years, who, according to Khedouri, choose to express their upward mobility through “armoires and beds and cabinets,” which can
retail for upwards of $10,000 USD. “A lot of it is this faux-imperial style–it’s supposed to look like stuff form the Ming dynasty.”
But tropical woods of all sorts–and rosewood in particular–are also in vogue in Europe and North America. Gilmer Wood is a lumber supplier based in Portland, Oregon that illustrates the difficulties of tracking
lumber through the world supply chain. They specialize in tropical timber and have a broad stock of rare hardwoods from all over the world. They
catalogue each piece of lumber they receive by number and by species along with photos on their website. But Gilmer draws on stock that they have had,
in some cases, for as long as 25 years. In the case rosewood from Madagascar Gilmer bought some Dalbergia maritima logs nearly twenty years
ago, and they are still milling it into planks now. With such a long shelf life, even accurately identified lumber can be almost totally removed from
the controversies of the day it was logged, and laundered and reinvented in perpetuity.
But Gilmer’s knowledge is something of an anomaly in the business. Recently, I spoke to a number of rosewood furniture importer/manufacturers based in
Los Angeles with factories in China; not one could tell me with certainty what species of rosewood they used in production, and several could not even
cite the country of origin of the wood they used. “That’s something you’ll find generally across the sector,” Khedouri said of suppliers’ trend to
ignorance of wood products.
Even “true rosewoods,” a dozen members of the genus Dalbergia, are found on three continents. But rosewoods have other doppelgangers in the
natural world–Pterocarpus indicus and Machaerium scleroxylon are two–that it hard to identify the precise origins of lumber–and
even less so of finished goods–sold as rosewood.
“To really know what species and tree is very difficult,” said Jerry, who runs the House of Rosewood in San Gabriel, CA as well as a factory in
Guangdong, China. “Even ourselves, when we purchase the raw material, it’s very hard to tell.” He thought, at least, that his wood came from Burma and
Indonesia. A salesman at KY Pool Tables in Monterey Park, CA told me they used “basic rosewood.” Their products are made in a factory in Guangzhou, but
“the material i heard is from Africa.”
Silky sifaka mother with one of her young and the baby of another mother. Photo by Jeff Gibbs.
The corner of nature that is being caught up in this whirlwind of anonymous trade is an intensely specific one. The species and ecosystems in SAVA that
are being destroyed by unrestricted logging do not exist anywhere else in the world and have been millions of years in the making. To take one example,
experts estimate that there are fewer than 1000 Silky Sifaka lemurs left in the world–most of them in Marojejy
National Park–and perhaps as few as 100. Eighty percent of Madagascar’s plant life and more than half of its animals are thought to be endemic. As the
EIA’s Johnson put it,
“some of the world’s unique forests, and the communities that rely on them, are being degraded beyond repair to feed our demand for luxury goods.”
The solution, Khedouri said, “depends on controlling demand and demonstrating that what we’re looking at in not the isolated removing of several trees
here and there but the generalized looting of protected areas…Rosewood,” he stressed, “is only part of the story.”This is a particularly egregious
case that can push China to set up similar [laws] to what we have in the US.”
There is a greater need, though, for us as consumers to educate ourselves not only about the products we are buying but on the other sources of revenue
that drive the companies we support, even indirectly–What else is Delmas shipping? Who else is Société Générale banking with? What
else is Walmart buying? Even if most of the illegally logged timber that goes to China remains in China, US consumers purchased $337 billion in
Chinese-made goods last year. How much more do we know about the minerals that dye the plastic in our toys or speed up the processor in our cell
phones? What do we know about the companies that unload container upon container of textiles, food, and electronics at our ports? How much do we demand
The recent trend towards green marketing marks the beginning of a demand for real knowledge about the products we consume and what their manufacture
has done to the planet. Most of us stand in ignorant complicity with the illegal loggers of the world unless we strive to learn more about the business
to business marketplace that forms the global supply chain for the goods we consume. History has shown us that political instability is terrible for
the environment, but we are a long way from peace and democracy in most regions of the world. In the mean time, we must do what we can to stem the
demand that makes this sort of enterprise so lucrative. Globalization has created a consumer culture of ignorance that we cannot afford to continue. We
must seek out companies and products that offer their consumers full transparency, and buy, or not, accordingly.
In Malagasy, the language of Madagascar
(11/24/2009) Authorities in Madagascar over the weekend launched a series of raids to uncover rosewood and other precious hardwoods illegally logged from the country’s national parks in the aftermath of a March military coup.
(11/19/2009) Federal agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided Gibson Guitar’s factory Tuesday afternoon, due to concerns that the company had been using illegally harvested wood from Madagascar, reports the Nashville Post.
(11/04/2009) A House of Representatives resolution introduced by Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) condemns the illegal plundering of natural resources in Madagascar, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
(08/30/2009) Rio Tinto’s ilmenite mine in southeastern Madagascar is among the largest on the planet. At peak capacity, its owners say, it could produce as much as 2 million tons of the stuff—worth roughly $100 a ton—each year, to be shipped off and smelted abroad. What’s left of it after refining—some 60 percent of the ore that arrives from Madagascar—will be sold for $2000 a ton as titanium dioxide, a pigment used in everything from white paint and tennis court lines to sunscreen and toothpaste. At current levels of demand, the Fort Dauphin mine will provide 9 percent of the world supply over the next 40 years, amounting to more than $60 billion of titanium dioxide. Even that is a conservative estimate: demand for ilmenite has been growing at 3-5 percent annually, with major mines slated to close in coming years and few untapped sources known worldwide.
(08/20/2009) Armed bands are decimating rainforest reserves in northeastern Madagascar, killing lemurs and intimidating conservation workers, despite widespread condemnation by international environmental groups.
(08/20/2009) New pictures released by Conservation International depict a troubling development in Madagascar: the emergence of a commercial bushmeat market for lemurs. In the aftermath of a March coup that saw Madagascar’s president replaced at gunpoint by the capital city’s mayor, Madagascar’s reserves — especially in the northern part of the country — were ravaged by illegal loggers. Armed bands, financed by foreign timber traders, went into Marojejy and Masoala national parks, harvesting valuable hardwoods including rosewood and ebonies. Without support from the central government — or international agencies that pulled aid following the coup — there was no one to stop the carnage. But now it emerges that timber wasn’t the only target.
(08/11/2009) On March 17th of this year the President of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, resigned his post. This made way for Andry Rajoelina, mayor of Madagascar’s capital, to install himself as president with help from the military. The unrest and confusion that usually accompanies such a coup brought disaster on many of Madagascar’s biological treasures. Within days of Ravalomanana’s resignation, armed gangs, allegedly funded by Chinese traders, entered two of Madagascar’s world-renowned national parks, Marojejy and Masoala parks, and began to log rosewood, ebonies, and other valuable hardwoods. The pillaging lasted months but the situation began to calm down over the summer. Now that the crisis in Madagascar has abated—at least for the time being—it’s time to take stock. In order to do so, Mongabay spoke to Erik Patel, an expert on the Critically Endangered Silky Sifaka and frequent visitor to Madagascar, to find out what the damage looks like firsthand and to see what lessons might be learned.
(06/12/2009) Despite the popularity he enjoyed abroad, domestic support for ousted president Marc Ravalomanana eroded rather quickly last February when he went head to head with Andry Rajoelina, the rookie mayor of Madagascar’s capital. Rajoelina rallied disparate opposition groups to the cause and soon toppled the incumbent to become, at his own proclamation, President of the “High Authority of Transition.” For the country as a whole, the results have not been encouraging. The tourism industry has shriveled to a shadow of itself, important donors have suspended non-humanitarian aid, and a power vacuum has set in in remote regions of the island, wreaking havoc on some of its most fragile and prized ecosystems.
(06/08/2009) Six nations and three conservation organizations have issued a statement calling for action against illegal logging in Madagascar’s protected areas.
(03/30/2009) Eleven conservation organizations—including WWF, CI, and WCS—have banded together to condemn logging in Madagascar’s world renowned parks during a time of political crisis. Taking advantage of the turmoil after interim president Andry Rajoelina took control of the country in a bloodless coup from former president Marc Ravalomanana on March 17th, pristine forests have been plundered for valuable wood, wildlife trafficking has increased, and illegal mining operations have begun say the conservation organizations.
(03/19/2009) Political turmoil in Madagascar has wrecked the country’s emerging ecotourism industry and is now threatening to undo decades of conservation work. Conservation in Madagascar is highly dependent on income from tourism. Half of park entrance fees are returned to communities living in and around protected areas. Without this source of income, locals in some areas may turn to conservation areas for timber, fuelwood, agricultural land, and wildlife as food and for export.