Chopping trees

Beginning in the last months of 2008, and throughout Madagascar’s 2009 political crisis, loggers descended on Madagascar’s northeastern forests in droves, intensifying their efforts after Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarivo, seized the presidency in a coup that March. Timber barons in the Sava region took advantage of the instability to expand into national parks, and exploited ambiguities in government regulations to claim their hauls were legitimate. More than $200 million worth of timber was exported in 2009 alone, equivalent to about 20 percent of the value of Madagascar’s exports that year, often without a shred of customs paperwork.

As Ndranto Razakamanarina, who chairs a coalition of Malagasy environmental groups called Alliance Voahary Gasy, told the New York Times at the time, “The government does nothing because it shares in the money … Many of the ministers think they’ll be in office only three or six months, so they decide to make money while they can. The timber mafia is corrupt, the ministers are corrupt.”

As the rush continued, in March 2010, the government responded to international pressure with a decree banning the cutting, transport, sale, or export of rosewood and ebony. But protected areas continued to be pillaged by businessmen with ties to the president, including politicians who have since used rosewood operations to fund their elections to Madagascar’s parliament.

Traffickers exploited the porousness of Malagasy law enforcement with remarkable creativity: they got government investigators transferred out of town, passed off 40-foot containers full of rosewood as 20-foot ones on customs forms, secured a special fast lane for processing rosewood shipments at the port in Tamatave, and routed logs via small boats to ports with less oversight, so that shipments ended up along the west coast, hundreds of miles from where the wood was cut. The number of people purporting to hold legitimate export licenses mushroomed between 2008 and 2011, from 13 to over 100.

UNESCO was so alarmed by the crisis that Madagascar’s eastern rainforests were listed as a world heritage site “in peril” — a finding Madagascar is still pushing to overturn.

Counting logs

The log counting began in 2010, “one by one,” according to Ratsimbazafy, who interviewed more than 200 people to compile the TRAFFIC report. “There wasn’t really a decision to adopt a method, like, ‘For rosewood in Madagascar, this is the way we’re going to count.’ It depends on the context, on who’s leading the inventory — on who’s there on the trip.”

Despite the World Bank’s role in funding the count, it was not directly involved in providing technical assistance or oversight until 2015, leaving the government to carry out its own haphazard system. The size of some seized stockpiles was estimated based on volume. Others were partially counted until the team doing the counting changed. The methods haven’t been recorded, by and large, while staff at the police stations and regional offices tasked with securing individual stockpiles often have no record of the quantity of logs in their custody.

There was another partial inventory of seized rosewood in 2011, a third in 2012, and a fourth in 2013. Bar codes came with the fifth, and most recent count, conducted in 2015 with support from a World Bank-funded consultant. But the numbers kept shifting. Stockpiles grew with each new seizure by law enforcement; in two cities north of Antalaha, Sambava and Vohémar, they also shrank. Even when the quantities stayed the same, it seemed that bona fide rosewood, known for its deep red color and exceptional density, was being swapped out for pine or eucalyptus.

According to the TRAFFIC report, 90 percent of the logs seized between 2013 and 2015 bore tick marks in red or white paint, indicating that they’d already been counted at least once, then stolen from stockpiles held by customs, police or regional government offices.

“If I put a pine tree there and I put used motor oil on it, do you think the World Bank is going to follow that?” asked an Antalaha business owner who follows the rosewood trade closely. “We’re in Madagascar. Everyone can be bought.”

“They counted the logs, they didn’t weigh them,” another longtime observer said, pointing out that a rosewood log could weigh two or three times more than a pine log of the same size. He wasn’t surprised by the difficulty of auditing the stockpiles effectively so much as bewildered by the idea that the World Bank agreed to fund the work. “Like throwing money into the water,” he said.

Meanwhile, new bosses continued to cycle in and out of key agencies amid the turbulence of the transitional government. Madagascar is currently on its ninth Minister of the Environment in as many years, since 2009.

Funding without a paper trail

The World Bank declined to provide any specific figures or comment for this story on the record beyond a $3 million to $4 million estimate for its support on the rosewood problem between 2012 and 2016. The Bank may have provided additional funding prior to 2012, in the midst of the logging crisis, and has continued to pay for Madagascar’s preparation and participation in CITES meetings on an ad hoc basis.

A source close to the effort said such funding demonstrates the World Bank’s flexibility, and allowed it to adapt to changing conditions under the transitional government in power from 2009 to 2014. “The other side of the coin is that you lose the ability to evaluate,” the source said, asking to remain anonymous to discuss a politically sensitive subject. Traditional project financing outlines a clear set of objectives with measurable results. In this case, money was taken from existing projects and spent without any formal budget, monitoring and evaluation, or other documents the Bank would agree to make public.

The money funded a range of initiatives, in addition to the management and inventory of stockpiles: technical studies on stockpile management as well as legal and scientific aspects of the rosewood trade, satellite surveillance for logging and trafficking activity, four patrol boats to be used in maritime enforcement, and per diems and travel for government officials and consultants involved in CITES and other meetings abroad.

But neither the Bank nor the Malagasy government have much to show for it. None of the major players in rosewood trafficking have been prosecuted since the height of the logging crisis in 2009 and 2010. The Bank could not cite any prosecution that relied on the satellite surveillance it funded. The four boats are still not in operation (in a recent report to CITES, the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology and Forests said it did not have $100,000 a year that would be required to operate the boats).

Most troubling of all is the ongoing uncertainty around the stockpiles.

And beyond the seized logs, two other categories of lumber need addressing before there’s any CITES-approved plan to deal with the wood definitively.

Beginning in 2011, the government asked logging operators to come forward and declare any logs they had already cut but which hadn’t been seized. More than 100 operators did, including 79 who were unable to provide any documentation to show their lumber was legal. On paper, these “declared stocks” dwarf the 28,000 logs the government estimates sit in seized stockpiles, but no one really knows. Declared stocks went from 261,000 logs in 2011 to 179,000 in 2013, then back to 270,000 in 2015, according to tallies by the Ministry of the Environment, Ecology, and Forests; World Bank documents from 2013 put the total at 550,000 logs.

According to TRAFFIC, it is widely understood that at least a portion of these declared stocks don’t actually exist: operators inflated the quantity of cut timber they possessed so as to have legal cover for any ongoing logging operations. To date, the government has not verified the location of declared stocks, never mind attempted to audit them. Nor has it taken action against those who claim to have lumber they can’t prove is legal.

Chart shows estimates of the number of rosewood logs in stockpiles of seized wood owned by the Madagascar government (Seized) and in the possession of rosewood operators who have declared them to the government (Declared). There are also so-called clandestine stocks — undeclared rosewood in private hands — that are believed to outsize even the declared stocks. Numbers for 2010 through 2013 come from a 2016 report [pdf] by the NGO TRAFFIC that relied on Madagascar government data; numbers for 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 come from a report [pdf] by the Madagascar government to the CITES Standing Committee in advance of its meeting later this month.

There are also so-called clandestine stocks, believed to be even larger than declared stocks. This past February, for instance, forestry officials got word that a boat off the shore of the Masoala peninsula, some 130 kilometers (50 miles) south of Antalaha, was attempting to load a cache of illegally logged rosewood. Chantal Rasoanirina and her supervisor jumped in a jeep and headed south in an effort to stop the shipment. They were late, but police discovered two large pits near the beach where the logs had presumably been buried, and colleagues were able to intercept the wood in Tamatave before it left the country on a bigger ship.

Three days later, Rasoanirina’s boss was transferred to a different part of the country, along with the police commander who had collaborated on the effort. Ostensibly, both men were demoted for being complicit in the export attempt. But two government sources with knowledge of the affair said just the opposite: the men’s conscience and earnest effort to halt the export had cost them their jobs.

“If there’s a civil servant who does his/her job well they automatically get transferred,” said Eline Rakotonirina, an environmental activist in Antalaha. “That’s the way it works in Sava.”

Eline Rakotonirina, an environmental activist in Antalaha whose group, COMATSA, has denounced rosewood trafficking in the region. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

As the years tick by, Serge Rajaobelina, whose NGO Fanamby has a long record of working in Sava, worries that any progress made in tallying stockpiles could unravel under sustained political pressure from loggers claiming their lumber was wrongfully seized. “I’m worried that we’re going to release wood to the same guy that cut the forest,” he said. “Everything here has been delayed. Some of the wood in the port in Vohémar has been there for eight or 10 years.”

At the same time, any push to dispose of even the seized stockpiles — never mind getting a handle on the much larger declared or clandestine stocks — is likely to be costly and logistically complicated, and could bring fierce political resistance from operators who still claim their lumber was harvested legally.

“Most rosewood traffickers have become either senators or deputies. They’re basically not attackable from within the system,” Rajaobelina said.

Jean Pierre Laisoa, better known as Jaovato, who made his fortune in rosewood and now represents Antalaha in parliament, also owns the closest thing the city has to a department store, where you can buy cement, mouthwash, school supplies, pasta machines and electronics. As Martin Bematana, a rosewood exporter who now serves as a senator, told Dan Rather for a 2013 documentary, “It was not illegal to exploit rosewood in the national parks during the political coup, because, there was no government, and no laws then.” Other rosewood barons are vanilla exporters, hotel owners and ferry operators.

In 2014, Armand Marozafy was among a group of local activists invited to an environmental symposium in Maroantsetra, hosted by Madagascar National Parks with involvement from the environment ministry. After a strong statement on rosewood enforcement from a ministry official, Marozafy recounted, a group of activists and locals living near Masoala National Park, himself included, abruptly left the event.

“You only work with the traffickers,” he said he protested when representatives from U.S. and Germany followed them, looking for an explanation. “All the villagers were aware that the hotel in which everybody was staying belonged to a trafficker, the bus that transported all the guests belonged to a trafficker, and when we ate, the people hired to cater the event — lunch, the coffee breaks, everything — that belonged to a trafficker,” he said.

In cities in the northeast, it can be hard to get around them. If, for example, the government needed to transport large quantities of rosewood from one place to another to consolidate or sell them legally, the operators are the people who might have trucks it could rent.

Rosewood traffickers’ influence appears to reach the highest levels of government. In 2014, officials in Singapore seized 29,434 rosewood logs from a ship that sailed from Madagascar bound for Hong Kong, worth an estimated $50 million. But the Malagasy government only begrudgingly came around to joining the prosecution: it took the appointment of a new minister of the environment to overturn his predecessor’s judgment that the export had been legal despite the pre-existing export ban.

Getting to “stock zero”

In retrospect, the 2014 technical report on inventory commissioned by the World Bank in Madagascar seems worked through with startling optimism, or even naïveté. It imagined a nine-month timeline to dispose of all the seized stockpiles, or an 18-month timeline to assess both seized and declared stockpiles and ship them out of the country. The report recommended funding this work with proceeds from any sale of rosewood, projecting costs of roughly 15 percent and a $75 million haul for the government.

For years, the Malagasy government and its partners have operated under the assumption that the stockpiles will eventually be sold on the international market, an outcome that promises far more revenue than any other, but one that also demands the most complex process for CITES approval. The two other alternatives, burning the wood or selling it domestically, involve some of the same basic logistical hurdles, but without the windfall resulting from an international sale.

Keeping the stockpiles where they are is a kind of silent, fourth option with clear drawbacks (the rosewood loses value with each year it spends outside in a hot, humid climate) and one distinct advantage: it cost less than any other path forward. The World Bank finally stopped financing Madagascar’s stockpile management at the end of 2015 because the project the money came from ended. A government commitment to provide $250,000 to continue the inventory has not yet materialized

At the most recent meeting of CITES’ Standing Committee, in 2016, Madagascar proposed an idea to fund the remaining work. It was the same one specified in the World Bank-funded report on stockpile management released more than two years earlier: they would use the proceeds from a partial sale to pay for a thorough inventory of the rest. That proposal is set to be reviewed at the next CITES meeting later this month.

Henri Rabenafitra, a retired civil servant who grew up in Sava and spent eight years as administrative director for the regional government, sat for an interview in his old office one morning in July, and said the whole ordeal reminded him of a trip he’d made to Antalaha with a delegation of ministers in 2004, after Cyclone Gafilo hit. At the time, rosewood and ebony logging were legal but heavily restricted, and the government agreed to allow operators to harvest trees felled by the storm, he said.

“At the end of 2005, we started to realize that instead of picking up trees that had been felled by the cyclone, they were cutting more.” Exports were halted immediately. “So the operators got together at the time, and they said, ‘Fine, you give us our authorization, and you take it away, but what are we going to do if we can’t export our stocks?’ That’s the moment we started talking about ‘stock zero,’” Rabenafitra said, describing the goal of eliminating all outstanding stockpiles.

“We’ve been talking about ‘stock zero’ ever since, but we still haven’t gotten there.”

Banner image: Banner image: A fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), a species that lives in Marojejy National Park, which was ground zero for Madagascar’s rosewood logging crisis in 2009. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter and radio producer based in Miami. Read more of his work at

This is the sixth part of Mongabay’s multi-part series “Conservation in Madagascar” being published during the fall of 2017. The entire series will be collected here.

Editor’s note 11/14/17: One sentence of background was added to the story to describe the demand for the illegally traded rosewood: “The vast majority of Malagasy rosewood is exported to China, where ornate rosewood furniture can sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.”


Randriamalala, H., & Liu, Z. (2010). Rosewood of Madagascar: Between democracy and conservationMadagascar Conservation & Development5(1), 11-22.

A Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), a species that lives in Masoala National Park, which has been heavily logged for rosewood. Photo by Bernard Dupont via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0].

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