Watching the carnage unfold was devastating. But stopping it seemed impossible since the coup leaders were complicit in the carnage. Violence limited the possibility of protest on the ground, and conservation groups went silent, not wanting to put their employees or projects at risk.

But I couldn’t sit by and watch Madagascar’s biological heritage go the way of the elephant bird, a species that dwarfed the ostrich but was killed off by humans in the past 500 years. After all, these were the forests that inspired Mongabay: the island of Nosy Mangabe lies just off the coast of where the worst logging was happening.

During the turmoil, I talked nearly daily with my network of Madagascar friends. The outlook was bleak.

Rosewood logs on a beach outside Maroantsetra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Smugglers waiting offshore to take rosewood logs to larger ships. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

But we were getting good information from informants on the ground. I began to learn more about the trafficking. European shipping companies were carrying rosewood logs out of ports in northeastern Madagascar. From there, most of the timber was going to China, where it was turned into fancy furniture, including, believe it or not, million-dollar beds.

The fact that European shipping companies were involved seemed like an opportunity for impact. One of my friends, Derek, had already written to the companies. All except one had agreed to stop carrying rosewood. But the lone holdout, Delmas, a French shipping line, was making up for their exit from the market: it was carrying tens of millions of dollars’ worth of timber. We would have to go after Delmas in such a way that it would have no choice but to stop carrying Madagascar’s rainforests away in shipping containers.

I got word that a major shipment, worth an estimated $20 million to $80 million, was planned for Dec. 21, 2009. I reached out to my network of contacts, including, an online activist group that barrages targets with complaints sent via email. At the same time I contacted associates of the French delegation to the climate talks in Copenhagen. France had taken a position against illegal logging at the climate talks, arguing that rainforest conservation offered a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I asked how France could take this position at a time when its own companies were facilitating illegal logging in Madagascar. Lastly I reached out to a number of journalists about the shipment, but it was surprisingly difficult to get mainstream media to take an interest in the story. I was told rosewood had already been covered or was inconsequential.

Two out of three seemed to work. The combination of an avalanche of emails and diplomatic complaints forced Delmas to leave port in late December 2009 without any timber. A representative from Delmas said afterward that transporting the timber wasn’t worth the damage to its reputation.

But the reprieve didn’t last long. On Dec. 31, 2009, the transitional authority led by Andry Rajoelina allowed the export of rosewood, signaling to loggers that they could now cash in on their efforts. Immediately following the decree, reports on the ground indicated an upswing in logging activity in Masoala and Makira national parks. In the midst of a cash crunch, Rajoelina’s government was apparently selling out Madagascar’s forests to finance an election that it hoped would validate its seizure of power.

Amazingly, no company would carry the timber. The damage from the campaign was such that rosewood had become toxic. It was not until the transitional authority exerted heavy pressure on Delmas that the company agreed to take some timber, three months later, and the rosewood trade resumed at scale.

Illegally cut rosewood logs in Maroantsetra, Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Smugglers waiting offshore to take rosewood logs to larger ships. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

But that proved to be a mistake. After a single timber shipment left Vohemar, a port in northeastern Madagascar where large stockpiles of rosewood are held, campaigners relaunched their email advocacy efforts. At the same time, environmental groups Global Witness and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) launched a public appeal to the governments of France and Madagascar.

Seeing this as a critical moment, I went full throttle in my efforts. I knew this approach could prevent me from ever setting foot in Madagascar again, but I had to proceed. I deepened my reporting on the transitional leaders, highlighting an undercover video that linked them to the illegal rosewood trade. The rosewood traffickers tried to fight back: cyberattacks against were launched against Mongabay and Wildmadagascar the day the uproar reached its peak. The aim was to shut down my sites by flooding them with denial-of-service attacks while simultaneously complaining to Amazon, my web host, that I was engaged in illegal activity.

But it was too late: the concerns were spotlighted in the national and international press, putting pressure on Madagascar’s transitional government. The outcry was so intense that the transitional government was forced to reinstate a ban on rosewood logging and exports, slowing down an illicit industry that had been destroying communities, wildlife and forests.

Madagascar’s leadership was particularly unhappy with the outcome — I was told Rajoelina called me a “bastard” for Mongabay’s reporting on the rosewood crisis.

Masoala rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Rainforest on the Masoala Peninsula as seen from the Bay of Antongil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Making an impact on rosewood trafficking in Madagascar didn’t require particularly advanced technology. It started with an email reaching the right people with the right message. Maybe next time it will be a Facebook post, a text message, a tweet, or a YouTube video.

The power of these media is clear. With edgy YouTube videos, Greenpeace virtually shut down the Brazilian beef industry for months in 2009 and forced Indonesia’s largest palm oil company to adopt a forest protection plan in 2010.

Article published by Rhett Butler
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