- Clovis Razafimalala has been working to end rosewood trafficking in Madagascar since 2009.
- He has been imprisoned since September on charges of unauthorized rebellion and burning state files and property during a protest he maintains he did not participate in.
- No trial date has been announced, although one is supposed to be set by May 26.
- Activists say his case raises concern for the civil rights of Malagasy environmental activists.
Clovis Razafimalala heads Lampogno, an organization seeking an end to illegal rosewood trafficking in northeastern Madagascar. Charged with unauthorized rebellion and burning state files and property during a protest he maintains he did not participate in, he has been imprisoned without trial since September 2016.
Rosewood, a suite of species in the genus Dalbergia, is one of the world’s most sought-after hardwoods, primarily to feed demand in China for the manufacture of luxury furniture. Several species endemic to Madagascar are listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. These have been subject to heavy, destructive logging particularly in the country’s national parks and protected areas, a situation that flared up following a 2009 coup.
Malagasy law prohibits the export of rosewood, and its trade is currently banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
In a phone call and an emailed statement from prison in the eastern city of Tamatave, Razafimalala recently told Mongabay that his fight against rosewood traffickers has been going on for years. He and his fellow activists have sought to raise public awareness, held workshops and press conferences, and lobbied officials, all the while operating under threats of death or imprisonment, he said.
According to Razafimalala the story started in April 2009, soon after the coup. That’s when he and five friends began hosting a weekly public education program on a local radio station, Radio 2000, in the northeastern seaport town of Maroantsetra, a hotbed of illegal harvesting and export of rosewood and ebony. “Over time, denouncing the massive destruction of the Malagasy environment and most of all within the two national parks Makira and Masoala became our priority,” Razafimalala said.
However, he said it was his discovery of an authorization to transfer approximately 5,700 rosewood logs issued by the Ministry of Environment, Ecology, and Forests to a powerful local businessperson that marked the beginning of the threats against Razafimalala.
In May 2009, a few weeks after asking questions about the documents at a meeting of local and regional authorities, Razafimalala said unknown assailants set fire to his house. Luckily, the fire was contained before it could ignite an unexploded Molotov cocktail found under the stilted house, and only the main door and a computer were burned. Radio 2000 was the target of a similar attack two days later, he said. The owner suspended Razafimalala and his friends’ show, reinstating it only after they agreed to speak less about rosewood trafficking.
Undeterred, the group joined forces with a local association of older people and forged a new organization dedicated to getting the authorities to crack down on rosewood trafficking. Only a few members participated, though, because authorities threatened them individually, he said. Eventually an association of ecotourism guides joined in and Razafimalala and two guides came to lead the effort against rosewood trafficking in Maroantsetra.
One key battle began toward the end of 2010, when the Malagasy government ordered the closure of customs services in Maroantsetra, apparently at the behest of rosewood traffickers, and the customs building was occupied by the National Gendarmerie, Razafimalala said. By then, Antongil Bay around Maroantsetra had become a major rosewood embarkation point. “It was a total mess,” said Razafimalala. He and his colleagues began lobbying the government to reopen the customs services.
Another front opened in 2014 when, due to the poor condition of the local airstrip, Air Madagascar cancelled all flights to Maroantsetra and the Malagasy government’s Civil Aviation Authority threatened to close the airport, he said.
“This decision was manipulated by rosewood traffickers,” Razafimalala said, “tourists coming to visit Masoala were bothering them a lot because they took photos and watched their activities.” He said he and his colleagues joined calls for the airport to be rehabilitated, lobbying the government in the capital city of Antananarivo, this time successfully.
Soon after, Razafimalala helped create a civil society group called Lampogno MaMaBaie (for Masoala and Makira national parks and Baie d’Antongil, as Antongil Bay is known in French). The group has been working to stop illicit natural resource trafficking in Antongil Bay, with a major goal being to get the custom services reopened.
“I have received many threats of death and imprisonment. At times I have been offered bribes in exchange for dissolving our organization, a proposal I have always refused,” Razafimalala said.
From August to September 2016, Razafimalala said he traveled to Antananarivo on Lampogno business, taking advantage of the trip to lobby government officials on the customs issue and securing a promise to reopen the Maroantsetra customs services before the end of the year.
According to Razafimalala, the day after he returned to Maroantsetra, protests erupted there on September 14. A legal dispute between two local businessmen had ended with a court victory for one of them allegedly involved in rosewood trafficking and whom Razafimalala had publicly criticized. Many people in Maroantsetra believed the decision was a corrupt one made in favor of the wealthy and powerful businessman, and the protest turned violent. Razafimalala maintained that he knew nothing about the protest and was not present at it.
The next afternoon, he said he and five others were arrested and held in custody by officers of the National Gendarmerie. Around 4 a.m. on the morning of September 16, Razafimalala said he the others were transferred by private plane to the city of Tamatave, some 250 miles away, where they were held at the Criminal Investigation Section. They were not permitted to contact their families, or to bring clothes or money, he said.
Transferring prisoners by private plane is highly unusual in Madagascar, according to Corrine Huynh Rahoeliarisoa of the National Coalition for Environmental Advocacy (CNPE).
“How could the government, if we imagine it was the government, have the financial means to hire a private plan for transferring seven or eight persons from Maroantsetra? It’s impossible,” Rahoeliarisoa told Mongabay. She added that she feels certain the alleged rosewood trafficker paid for the flight, though she admitted she has no proof.
For ten days, Razafimalala said he and the others were held at the Criminal Investigation Section then deferred to the Court of First Instance in Tamatave to answer to charges of rebellion without authorization, destruction of state-owned assets, and burning of state documents. They were then sent to a local prison for eight months of pre-trial detention.
Razafimalala claims a breach of procedure in his case. Trials are normally held in the same town where a defendant is arrested, but he said no official notice from the Maroantsetra court has been disclosed that would justify the Court of First Instance in Tamatave taking control of his case.
Razafimalala said he is well treated in jail. But a week after his incarceration, poison threats were circulating in the prison, he said, adding “My wife had to come here to Tamatave with my two children to ensure the meals (so they wouldn’t pass through any middle men).”
The pre-trial detention is supposed to end by May 26, but so far no trial date has been announced. Razafimalala’s four requests for interim release were denied. However the requests of two others arrested the same day were granted. The latest development for Razafimalala and the three others who remain in custody was the issuance of a legal order guaranteeing their release 30 months after their arrest if no trial date is set.
Since Razafimalala’s arrest, Lampogno has been weakened, according to a member who requested anonymity because of constant safety threats. The source said that members knowledgeable about the illegal rosewood trade were now refusing to speak out due to fear. And Maroantsetra customs services remains closed, according to Razafimalala.
Rahoeliarisoa of the CNPE said that in her opinion “Clovis was trapped.”
She said the CNPE, a coalition of environmental groups including Lampogno, has Razafimalala’s liberation as a top priority. The coalition held two press briefings in February calling for his immediate release. A worldwide petition launched separately by the German NGO Sauvons la Forêt has gathered more than 108,000 signatures.
In Madagascar, rosewood trafficking continued to worsen after the 2009 coup, despite a government commitment to end the illicit timber trade in 2013. In September 2016, the CITES Standing Committee called upon the country to implement a “timber action plan” to protect its forests or face potential trade sanctions.
The detention of Razafimalala is not an isolated case. In 2015 one of Razafimalala’s fellow anti-trafficking activists, ecotourism guide Armand Marozafy, spent five months in prison on defamation charges for naming two businessmen allegedly involved in rosewood logging via a private email sent to a foreign contact that was later posted on Facebook.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international organization dedicated to unveiling environmental crimes, has expressed concern about the situation for Malagasy environmental activists.
“As long as civil society is not able to operate freely and independently in Madagascar, the very basic conditions for even starting to implement the CITES action plan are not in place,” Susanne Breitkopf, EIA policy director told Mongabay. “While illegal timber barons have nothing to worry [about], the very people who are standing up to protect their forests from criminal elements are being incarcerated.”
May 9, 2017 UPDATE: Amnesty International has launched a campaign on behalf of Clovis Razafimalala.
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