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Conservationists call for lasting ban on trade in Malagasy precious timber

Rosewood logs on the beach at Maroantsetra in Analanjirofo region of Madagascar, from 2005. Image by Rhett A. Butler

  • Precious rosewood and ebony has been plundered from Madagascar’s forests for decades, threatening the survival of these hardwood tree species.
  • Recent regulations have led to the Madagascar government accumulating a stockpile of the illegal precious wood, whose fate remains undecided.
  • A new paper calls for species in two genera, Dalbergia and Diospyros, to be placed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty regulating trade in threatened species.
  • The move would ban all trade in the precious wood and thwart an attempt by the government to legalize and sell off the existing stockpile.

For over a decade Madagascar has wrestled with a thorny question: What to do with stockpiles of illegal precious timber in government custody? A new analysis contends that selling off the confiscated timber would fuel rather than curb illegal felling and trade of endangered tree species.

What needs to be done, according to a paper published recently in Biological Conservation, is to offer the hardwood species the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) rather than sign off on a government plan to legally sell it. The fate of the stockpile could be decided at the next CITES conference of parties, which was scheduled to be in Sri Lanka later this May but has now been postponed following the terrorist attacks there on Easter.

“Across Madagascar, these trees have been heavily exploited, even inside protected areas. Neglecting to move them up to Appendix I, can result in certain species being driven to extinction before being formally described,” authors, Patrick O. Waeber at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems, Derek Schuurman, product manager for Madagascar at a U.K. based tour company, and Lucienne Wilmé of the Washington, D.C.-based NGO World Resources Institute told Mongabay in a joint email response. All trade is banned for species listed in CITES Appendix I.

Wood from tree species in two genera from Madagascar, Dalbergia (rosewood and palisander) and Diospyros (ebony), is considered precious timber. They’re coveted for their rich hue, fragrance and durability, and used in the manufacture of fine furniture and musical instruments. However, identifying the species and site of origin of a given piece of timber is difficult if not impossible once a tree has been logged, the three experts said.

The destination of the timber is easier to determine. China is the largest market for illegally harvested rosewood; a rosewood bed can sell for as much as $1 million, according to an investigation by the Washington D.C.-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and the international NGO Global Witness. The 2009 coup d’état in Madagascar and ensuing period of political instability resulted in a surge in illegal rosewood logging. Chinese imports of rosewood from Madagascar grew from 200,000 to 1.7 million cubic meters (7 million to 60 million cubic feet) between 2010 and 2014, a TRAFFIC study found.

Politics, forest regulation changes, and corruption in Madagascar. During pre- and post-election periods, forest regulations have been adapted to open up forests for the exploitation of precious timber to finance political campaigns. Cyclones, which naturally felled a number of trees in forests, have been used as an excuse to extract rosewood logs from those forests. Corruption Perception Index based on Transparency International (2018); cyclone data retrieved from Météo France (2019). Image courtesy: Patrick O. Waeber

The plunder of precious wood from Madagascar’s forests has invited severe censure from the international community. In the face of mounting international pressure, rosewood and ebony from Madagascar were placed in Appendix II of CITES in 2013, subjecting international trade to regulation. An action plan was approved at the same time that included an embargo on the export of rosewood and ebony and called for an inventory of stockpiles and an assessment of standing trees to be made.

Since then, in consecutive meetings, CITES has extended the embargo and rejected iterations of the “Stockpile Verification Mechanism and Business Plan” put forth by the Malagasy government for auditing and ultimately legally exporting the stock of precious wood in its custody. “The World Bank took the lead in organising a business plan, which essentially was [a] sophisticated way of legalising the illegal stocks, in order to export those stocks,” the authors of the new paper said in the interview.

The World Bank defended its role in formulating the plan, in response to queries from Mongabay. “The World Bank has encouraged the Government of Madagascar to develop a robust system to trace stockpiles once audits/inventories are completed that will contribute to providing a system for tracking any eventual use, not limited to sales, as part of a broader strategy to manage Madagascar’s forest resources sustainably,” a World Bank spokesperson said. She added that the “ultimate objective of the business plan is to clear uncontrolled stockpiles, so as to facilitate normal enforcement and sustainable forest management efforts in the future.”

The argument, also put forward by the government, is that once they have legally exported the confiscated timber and arrived at a “stock zero” point, they will be able to track any new logging. What has been a stumbling block in the process is the lack of clarity about how much confiscated timber exists in the country. Field reports suggest that timber traffickers freely dip into and add to the cache, which is not fully under government control. One of the contentious proposals put forward by the Malagasy government is to financially incentivize bad actors to report their illegal stash.

However, conservationists have challenged the possibility of sustainable management, given the slow-growing nature of the trees and the knowledge gaps about the species from which the prized wood is sourced. The government’s poor record in checking illegal logging is another reason not to go down the route of “sustainable management,” which requires a strong regulatory framework and enforcement capabilities. “Any proposition of sustainable utilisation of these slow-growing hardwoods, is a myth,” the authors said.

Placing the precious woods in Appendix I would close the door on future plans to sell the stocks and break a vicious cycle that perpetuates the trade, the authors said. Periodic bans and their subsequent relaxations have proved counterproductive by rewarding those who simply stash away illegal timber until exports are allowed again.

The paper goes on to say that even uplisting the rosewood and ebony species to Appendix I is only part of the solution. Broader, deep-rooted issues that threaten entire forests, like slash-and–burn forest clearing for agriculture, need to be addressed, too.

Madagascar’s ministry of environment did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Citations

Waeber, P.O., Schuurman, D., Ramamonjisoa, B., Langrand, M., Barber, C.V., Innes, J.L., Lowry II, P.P. and Wilmé, L. (2019). Uplisting of Malagasy precious woods critical for their survivalBiological Conservation235, pp.89-92.

Banner Image: Rosewood logs on the beach at Maroantsetra, Madagascar, in 2005. Image by Rhett A. Butler

Malavika Vyawahare is the Madagascar staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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