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Madagascar: Yet another anti-trafficking activist convicted

Pardalis chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a resident of the Masoala Peninsula in northeastern Madagascar, where illegal rosewood logging has taken a heavy toll on forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Pardalis chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a resident of the Masoala Peninsula in northeastern Madagascar, where illegal rosewood logging has taken a heavy toll on forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Christopher Magnenjika, an activist working to stem corruption and wildlife trafficking in northeastern Madagascar, was tried, convicted, fined $9 and released earlier this month.
  • The charges against Magnenjika include “rebellion” and insulting local officials.
  • Magnenjika’s supporters say his arrest and conviction were a pretext for keeping him quiet about the illicit trade in rosewood, a valuable tropical hardwood.
  • Magnenjika is one of at least ten Malagasy activists who have faced imprisonment in recent years.

An activist working to stem corruption and wildlife trafficking in northeastern Madagascar was convicted and immediately released earlier this month — a tactic that has become common in the island nation and is seen as a way of cracking down on environmental activism.

The charges against Christopher Magnenjika included “rebellion” and insulting local officials. He spent more than three weeks in prison before a court pronounced him guilty and fined him on June 8.

Magnenjika is the volunteer communications coordinator for Lampogno, a local group that fights against the trafficking of natural resources, such as rosewood (Dalbergiaspp.), a valuable tropical hardwood that grows in the area. He has called out corruption not just in the illegal rosewood trade but also in the school system and the ferry transport system in his village of Rantabe, south of the city of Maroantsetra.

Christopher Magnenjika, a Malagasy activist who was tried, convicted, and released earlier this month. Image courtesy of Clovis Razafimalala.

His recent case makes him at least the tenth Malagasy activist to be imprisoned in recent years, and several others have faced intimidation.

“There is a striking resemblance between Christopher’s case and that of other environmental activists in Madagascar, who have also faced accusations of ‘rebellion’ as an excuse to silence them,” Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues, said in a statement.

Magnenjika’s case bears similarities to that of Clovis Razafimalala, the Lampogno coalition’s president, who was imprisoned for 10 months before being tried, convicted, fined and released on parole in 2017. Several other activists throughout the country have also been convicted and immediately released on parole, presumably as a way to keep them quiet. Members of the Lampogno coalition, which is based in Maroantsetra, a hotbed of rosewood trafficking, have faced particular difficulty, both with death threats from traffickers and legal pressure from government officials, some of whom benefit from the illegal trade. Armand Marozafy, who volunteers with the coalition alongside Razafimalala and Magnenjika, was convicted of defamation in 2015 and spent five months in jail.

Meanwhile, Madagascar’s government has prosecuted none of the major timber barons or traffickers, even though the rosewood trade violates national laws and international agreements. The trade of Malagasy rosewood and ebony (Diospyrosspp.) has been banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 2013. Almost all of the demand for rosewood comes from China, where it’s used in high-end furniture. Rosewood is the most trafficked form of wildlife in the world.

The immediate reason for  Magnenjika’s prosecution remains unclear, but just before his arrest he had been at odds with local officials over two issues. He set up a new river crossing in Rantabe, where authorities had previously controlled, and profited from, the ferry system. And, though he denied any involvement, he was blamed for villager protests against the police, which began after a vanilla heist in which one person was killed. People were unhappy with the way the police handled the case, according to Razafimalala.

A river crossing in Magnenjika’s home village of Rantabe. Image courtesy of Clovis Razafimalala.

The recent disputes offered a pretext for Magnenjika’s arrest, Razafimalala said. The Lampogno leader told Mongabay that local officials’ real aim is to keep Magnenjika quiet about the rosewood trade and intimidate other activists. He said officials and rosewood traffickers are taking advantage of Madagascar’s current instability to crack down on activists. Political disputes ahead of a presidential election have caused tumult in recent months.

Magnenjika, 46, is a father of four and a middle-school teacher employed by the state — a highly respected position in rural Madagascar. He was taken into custody on May 15 and his trial was held June 1 in Maroantsetra. Though denied bail on that day, he was released when the guilty verdict was announced a week later. In lieu of a prison sentence, he was fined about $9.

Amnesty International called this an “absurd fine” and said that it was clearly incommensurate with the serious crimes, including “rebellion,” that the state claims Magnenjika committed.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Magnenjika is a middle-school teacher as well as the volunteer communications coordinator for Lampogno, a group that fights against the trafficking of natural resources in northeastern Madagascar. The sign behind him reads “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch and do nothing.” Image courtesy of Clovis Razafimalala.

Banner image: Pardalis chameleon (Furcifer pardalis), a resident of the Masoala Peninsula in northeastern Madagascar, where illegal rosewood logging has taken a heavy toll on forests. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

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