- In June, the World Bank facilitated a workshop to discuss what Madagascar should do with its stockpiles of illegally logged rosewood.
- Madagascar has been grappling with the question for years, but has been unable to make a proper inventory of the stockpiled wood or control illegal exports.
- The rosewood could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the international market, but the country cannot sell it until it shows progress in enforcing its own environmental laws.
- At the workshop, Madagascar’s government proposed a radical solution: paying loggers for access to their illicit stockpiles in order to keep tabs on the wood, or even buying the wood back from them directly.
Nobody knows just how much rosewood Madagascar’s timber barons have hidden away in caches throughout the country. Buried in the sand, sunken in rivers, or tucked away in remote, walled compounds, these illicit stockpiles are thought to be worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in all, the product of a wave of illegal logging that laid waste to the country’s national parks during a political crisis surrounding a 2009 coup d’état.
But after years of Sisyphean attempts to figure out the extent of the haul, Madagascar’s government is now proposing paying loggers for access to their illicit stockpiles in order to keep tabs on the wood, or even buying the wood back from them directly. By doing so, the government hopes to clear the way for the wood to be exported legally so the country can at last achieve “stock zero,” that is, eliminate all stockpiles of cut rosewood to make it easier to keep tabs on any new logging.
“It is clear the wood is illegal,” said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, who runs the Madagascar program for the international conservation NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). As such, she says she’s worried that compensating operators who submit to government monitoring or a buyback program would “send a wrong message of rewarding people who broke the law.”
The Madagascar government made its latest proposal informally in a two-day workshop in the capital, Antananarivo, in June. The World Bank facilitated the workshop, which included representatives from other intergovernmental organizations, WWF and a handful of other NGOs, and government delegations from Madagascar, the European Union, the U.S. and China, which has historically been the dominant market for illegal rosewood.
The purpose of the meeting was to allow stakeholders to weigh in on plans to dispose of the stockpiles. Under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, no more Malagasy rosewood can leave the country untilthe government shows progress in enforcing its own environmental laws. In December of last year, CITES’s Standing Committee rejected an earlier version of Madagascar’s proposal to sell rosewood stockpiles for export, which also involved paying loggers for their secret troves. In doing so, the committee called on the government to find and recover the wood in so-called declared stockpiles. The proposal will be formally evaluated again at the Standing Committee’s next meeting, in Russia in October.
So far, any reliable accounting of the felled rosewood has been an elusive target. The logs fall into three categories: “seized” stockpiles in the government’s control; “declared” stockpiles claimed and controlled by loggers and exporters, many in unknown locations; and a presumed third group of clandestine “undeclared” stockpiles. Roughly $3 million, loaned by the World Bank, has been spent on the stockpile question since 2010, including no fewer than five rounds of inventories, focused on seized and declared logs. Each one was conducted by a different team, using different methodologies, and produced different estimates of the total number of logs.
The CITES Standing Committee’s critique of the government’s earlier plan to sell off seized rosewood stockpiles noted that the government did not have the estimated $8 million it needs to complete the inventory work, that the time frame for doing so was unrealistic, and that there weren’t enough controls to make sure the process wasn’t rigged to benefit illegal loggers.
Under the government’s new proposal, loggers would be enticed to submit to an audit of their stockpiles by the promise of a “buyback” once the wood is moved to a government-controlled depot. They would have the option of receiving $400 per ton of rosewood in dividends from a government rosewood sale on the international market, or $250 per ton, paid up front. The government would seize any logs not included in the audit.
The proposal generated enough controversy during the June meeting that a summary published by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), an intergovernmental group based in Japan, noted advice from some participants “that the term ‘buy-back’ should not be used in the [business plan], which should instead refer to a compensation or incentive scheme.”
Several representatives from Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests declined interviews with Mongabay or said they were not available for comment.
“The government is concerned that any efforts to seize the stockpiles by force could lead to social friction and perhaps even violent confrontations,” said Steven Johnson, who co-hosted the meeting as a representative of the ITTO.
Alex von Bismarck, who participated in the meeting as director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group that has done extensive work on Malagasy rosewood, agreed that the risk of conflict was real. But he said the logging itself, not attempts at enforcement, was to blame. “Clearly, money from the illegal rosewood trade has destabilized the democratic process in Madagascar before,” he said, citing entrenched corruption, illicit funding for political campaigns, and manipulation of the justice system to silence critics of illegal logging.
The government has considered two other options to deal with illegally logged rosewood: burn it, as other countries have done with caches of seized ivory, or sell it locally, so the rosewood can be made into furniture or handicrafts that would be legal to export. Neither option would require special CITES approval, making them cheaper to execute than orchestrating a legitimate international sale, and considerably less complex.
But as it stands, Madagascar has relatively little infrastructure to support a domestic industry for wood processing, and sale for export has long been considered the default goal because it has the potential to raise major revenue. As representatives from the environment ministry argued at the workshop, according to the meeting summary, “the government needed to realize the maximum value from its natural resources to contribute to its goals of improved forest management and sustainable development.”
Malagasy rosewood (Dalbergia sp.) is prized for its deep crimson color and for its density, which makes it extremely resistant to rot. On the wholesale market in China, a single high-quality log measuring 3 meters long by 30 centimeters in diameter (10 feet by 1 foot) can fetch thousands of dollars.
But Rick Hearne, a Pennsylvania-based hardwood dealer who is a consultant on the government’s business plan, estimates that stockpiles exposed to the elements for five years will already have lost between 70 and 80 percent of their value. “It doesn’t mean just because it won’t rot that the quality won’t degrade,” Hearne told Mongabay.
It’s unclear how much of the felled rosewood might be affected. Stocks seized by the government are typically held outdoors, while loggers with concealed stocks have presumably taken steps to protect their assets.
A more pressing problem is the risk of theft and continued smuggling posed by large caches of cut logs. Fluctuating estimates of existing stockpiles provide cover for loggers to hide newly cut illegal timber, while the porousness of the government’s stockpiles invites attempts to replace seized rosewood with cheap eucalyptus or pine logs. As Cynthia Ratsimbazafy, who authored a comprehensive reporton the stockpiles for the organization TRAFFIC in 2016, told Mongabay last year, “The longer this situation stretches out, the more of the stockpile will disappear.”
The government is hoping to curb the air of impunity that has surrounded rosewood smuggling by creating a specialized court to hear illegal logging cases on an expedited basis. WWF’s Ratsifandrihamanana called the court, which is expected to be up and running by the end of the year, “a big step forward.”
“Now let’s see what they do,” she added. “At the end of the day, it is all about political will and I feel this is still missing.”
An article published in late July by three longtime observers of Madagascar’s illegal rosewood trade argued that the country’s political class lacked the wherewithal to sell off the stockpiles without creating a cascade of unintended consequences, including a new round of illegal logging. “We know that [selling is] the wrong move, that it’s a signal to send people back into the forest, because it’s happened four, five times before,” said Lucienne Wilmé, a co-author of the paper and Madagascar coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based NGO World Resources Institute, whose work focuses on data on forest loss.
Wilmé and her co-authors suggest another possibility: sinking rosewood to the bottom of an artificial lake for a generation, where it could be held indefinitely with no loss of quality. By then, they hope, the political scene will have shifted such that a better solution will come into focus.
“I don’t see what the emergency is to sell,” von Bismarck said. He said Malagasy logging interests had plenty of practice exploiting the loopholes in any scheme to separate legal logs from illegal ones.
“Right now, things are relatively quiet, and that could change tomorrow if those bosses think they can actually sell that stuff again,” he said. “The only signal that’s going to [be] believed in the forest, and which will stop illegal wood from flourishing again, is to say, ‘Stop — this illegal wood is not going to make it to market.’”
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.
Waeber, P.O., Schuurman, D., Wilmé, L. (2018). Madagascar’s rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) stocks as a political challenge. PeerJ Preprints 6:e27062v1