International embargo on exports of Madagascar’s precious woods extended

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The Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has decided to extend an embargo on the trade of Madagascar’s precious woods.

International embargo on exports of Madagascar’s precious woods extended
  • The illegal harvest and trade of ebonies (Diospyros), palisanders, and rosewoods (Dalbergia) is devastating the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples and the unique ecosystems of Madagascar.
  • Madagascar has made very little progress on key commitments it agreed to as part of a 2013 CITES listing and has failed to implement structural reforms to its judicial system necessary to ensure functional forest governance, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency.
  • The parties convened in Geneva last week for the 66th Standing Committee of CITES decided to continue the embargo, and threatened further sanctions if the Madagascar government didn’t show any progress by the committee's next meeting in September.

Last week in Geneva, the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) decided to extend an international embargo on the trade of Madagascar’s precious woods.

The illegal harvest and trade of ebonies (Diospyros), palisanders, and rosewoods (Dalbergia) is devastating the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples and the unique ecosystems of Madagascar, according to a briefing paper prepared by the Environmental Investigation Agency ahead of the convention.

The island nation has banned all harvesting of these vulnerable species since 2006 and added to that a ban on all exports, including existing stockpiles of logs, in 2010 that is ongoing today. An international embargo was adopted by CITES member countries in 2013 to support the Madagascar government in stanching the flow of these precious woods across its borders.

In February 2014, Madagascar’s president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, pledged to personally lead the charge against illegal timber trafficking.

But Madagascar has made very little progress on key commitments it agreed to as part of the CITES listing and has failed to implement structural reforms to its judicial system necessary to ensure functional forest governance, the EIA says.

“Despite solemn announcements of strong enforcement measures, declarations of ‘war’ against illegal logging, and a ‘zero tolerance’ policy,” according to EIA’s brief, “law enforcement remains weak and ineffective.”

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/Reportage by Getty Images)
VOHEMAR, MADAGASCAR – AUGUST 17, 2009: Illegal rosewood fills a container in the port town of Vohemar. Each container can hold between 150-250 logs 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.

Responding to the unresolved crisis for Madagascar’s natural populations of the sought-after tree species, the parties convened in Geneva last week voted to continue the embargo until the next meeting of the CITES Standing Committee on September 23, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and threatened further sanctions if the Madagascar government didn’t show any progress.

Lisa Handy, a senior policy adviser at the EIA, said she is pleased by the strong recommendations adopted by the Standing Committee.

“Not one timber baron has been jailed or seriously prosecuted, while the illegal trade continues and the vast majority of domestic stockpiles have not yet been properly audited or secured,” Handy told Mongabay. “The international community remains steadfast in its support for Madagascar in this process, but the message to the government of Madagascar is clear: it is time to take action and demonstrate results on the ground.”

For its part, the government of Madagascar seems to understand there is a problem. The country’s Minister of the Environment announced last September that illegal trafficking of rosewood was under rapid decline thanks to strategies the government had developed with the aid of funds from the World Bank, and that he predicted the illicit trade would soon come to an end altogether.

But what’s less clear is whether or not Madagascar officials have any idea how to effectively tackle the problem — or the will to do so. The EIA says an undercover investigation in late 2015 collected numerous testimonies from Chinese importers, traders, and manufacturers who reported that illegal exports in precious woods from Madagascar continued apace in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

To the extent there was a slowdown, according to these testimonials, it was due to decreased demand amidst an economic slump in China more than the laws in Madagascar or even the rapidly diminishing supply.

Rosewood_table
An example of the “hongmu” furniture made of rosewood prized by Chinese society. Photo by Environmental Investigation Agency.

“All interlocutors declare that this situation is a temporary downturn: as soon as the economic growth restarts, the benefits earned by breaking the Malagasy law will once again attract the traffickers,” the EIA brief states.

China is the largest importer of rosewood in the world by a wide margin. Rosewood and other deeply hued tropical hardwoods are collectively known as hongmu and are made into luxury furniture and other goods that are coveted status symbols in Chinese society.

Madagascar had a proposal before the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva that it be allowed to auction off existing stockpiles of rosewood and other precious woods, reopen trade, and allow new logging, which demonstrated “a lack of commitment to actually stemming the flow of illegal timber and protecting these vulnerable species,” the EIA says.

If the government of Madagascar fails to rein in the illegal trade of these vulnerable species by the next meeting of the Standing Committee, or SC, the embargo will escalate to include all CITES-listed species from Madagascar.

This kind of comprehensive ban has been previously used by the CITES Secretariat to pressure member states that repeatedly failed to enforce recommendations or mandatory measures, the EIA’s Handy told Mongabay. For instance, it was used just last year to target the Democratic Republic of Congo after the country failed to submit its National Ivory Plan on time.

The EIA had recommended the Standing Committee, or SC, suspend trading of all CITES-listed species from Madagascar immediately, while the European Union had officially endorsed April 30 as the date when the sanctions would be implemented. But the SC eventually decided to give Madagascar more time.

But that does not mean Madagascar has gotten off lightly. “The fact that this sanction is formally included in the SC’s recommendations is an important step,” Handy said, “since it clearly sets the stage for the discussions in September.”

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. Traders stockpile wood along to coast waiting for shipments to leave before restocking the port. This depot owned by Mme. 'Kara' Chan Hoylane was estimated to have over 2000 rondin. (Photo by Toby Smith/Reportage by Getty Images)
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/Environmental Investigation Agency.

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