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Countries call for new CITES protections for rosewood species

  • Booming Asian demand for luxury furniture and other goods made with deeply hued tropical hardwoods is driven primarily by China and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam.
  • Forests and local communities from Asia to Africa and Latin America are feeling the effects of Asia’s hongmu demand.
  • None of the three most sought-after hongmu species are currently listed by CITES.

This week, the 66th Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is meeting in Geneva, and multiple countries are calling for parties to the convention to address the urgent conservation dilemma posed by Asian demand for rosewood, or hongmu.

Senegal has submitted a proposal to the CITES Secretariat to protect Pterocarpus erinaceus, or African rosewood, while Mexico and other countries want all species of Dalbergia protected as well.

According to a briefing prepared for the 66th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee by the Environmental Investigation Agency, booming Asian demand for luxury furniture and other goods made with deeply hued tropical hardwoods like rosewood, mahogany and ebony is driven primarily by China and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam, but is wreaking havoc on forests and local communities from Asia to Africa and Latin America.

There are 33 hongmu species within the genera of Pterocarpus, Diospyros, Dalbergia, Millettia, and Cassia. But today, three-fourths of the global hongmu trade is focused on just three — Pterocarpus erinaceus, Pterocarpus macrocarpus/pedatus, and Dalbergia oliveri/bariensis.

Despite connections between the illicit hongmu trade and organized crime, the dire consequences of over-logging for the species itself, the damage to the forest ecosystems in which these species grow, and the human populations whose lives and livelihoods depend on them, none of the three most sought-after hongmu species are currently listed by CITES.

“CITES is failing to address the Hongmu challenge,” the EIA briefing says, noting that sales in China’s Hongmu sector alone exceeded $25 billion in 2014.

A rosewood table. Photo by Environmental Investigation Agency.

In its proposal to protect the African rosewood, a species native to the semi-arid savanna forests of West Africa, the government of Senegal lists the many ways people rely on the trees: it’s used as fuel, medicine, timber, even animal feed.

The last few years have seen huge growth in the trade of P. erinaceus, per Senegal’s proposal, with China’s imports of rosewood from West Africa in particular growing 15,000-fold.

In the first quarter of 2009, just $12,000-worth of rosewood was taken out of West Africa, but in the third quarter of 2014 that number would balloon to more than $180 million.

What’s more, “There is strong evidence to indicate that a series of illegal practices were implemented in order to meet this growing demand,” the government of Senegal wrote in the proposal, “including in particular, the illegal harvesting and unsustainable exploitation of specimens as well as complex phenomena of smuggling at the regional level.”

China and Vietnam have no laws to stop illegal rosewood imports

Many West African countries have adopted regulatory measures to protect the species, from total bans on harvesting and export to stricter controls on the species.

“Unfortunately, it is clear that these national measures often remain inadequate and fail to address regional and intercontinental drivers of illegal and unsustainable exploitation of the species,” the Senegal proposal adds.

A new report by Washington, D.C.-based NGO Forest Trends says that hongmu species are declining across Southeast Asia’s forests due to decades of over-harvesting, forcing Chinese traders to turn to sources in Africa and Latin America.

Rosewood imports into China increased some 1,250 percent between 2000 and 2014, Forest Trends has found. Laos, Nigeria, Myanmar, and Ghana were China’s top four suppliers of rosewood in 2014, when hongmu imports were worth an estimated $2.6 billion.

VOHEMAR, MADAGASCAR – AUGUST 18, 2009: Rosewood depot on the outskirts of the port town of Vohemar. The tiny port of Vohemar is full with containers waiting for export to China and beyond. Photo by Toby Smith/Environmetnal Investigation Agency.

While Southeast Asian countries account for 50 percent of harvested volume of hongmu, their higher-quality trees are worth 70 percent of the hongmu trade’s value. But as Asian sources of rosewood have diminished, African imports have come to comprise the other half of imports into China, quite a difference from a decade ago, when just 12 percent came from Africa.

Non-Asian species are often considered lower-quality and can be smaller in size, but that means they can be sold at a price point that even China’s growing middle class can afford, driving demand ever higher.

Many source countries have laws controlling the harvesting and trade of key rosewood species, but both China and Vietnam have no enforceable controls to prevent imports of illegally logged timber.

Forest Trends’ Naomi Basik Treanor wrote in a blog post that CITES is respected and enforced by the governments of China and Vietnam, therefore extending CITES protection to the top hongmu species could be an effective workaround.

“The governments of Senegal and Mexico have emerged as leaders in the fight to protect these highly threatened species, and their efforts should be applauded — we look forward to Chinese authorities working with them to control the trade,” Treanor said.

VOHEMAR, MADAGASCAR – AUGUST 17, 2009: Illegal rosewood fills a container in the port town of Vohemar. Each container can hold between 150-250 rondin and is destined for China and in some cases Europe. Although the government issued a blockage on the port the local traders must only pay a token fine before it can be exported. Photo by Toby Smith/Environmetnal Investigation Agency.