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Madagascar no longer insisting on selling its seized rosewood, for now

  • Madagascar has withdrawn its demand to be allowed to sell illegally harvested rosewood timber that it had previously seized.
  • The move aligns Madagascar’s position more closely with that of the international community, which wants the country to crack down on the illegal logging and timber trade before a relaxation or lifting of the ban is even considered.
  • However, the government hasn’t ruled out seeking permission for a sale in the future, raising concern among observers about the message this could send to illegal traders and to other countries also seeking to offload stockpiles of trafficked contraband.

A ban on the international trade in rosewood, a prized timber, remains intact following the close this week of a global summit on the trade in wild animals and plants.

What did change at the 18th Conference of the Parties (CoP18) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was that Madagascar, a key source country for illegal precious wood, withdrew its demand to be allowed to sell rosewood stocks that it had previously seized in the international market.

“I reiterate once again a paradigm shift that Madagascar will not consider marketing,” Lala Ranaivomanana, secretary-general of Madagascar’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, said at the CITES summit in Geneva. He added that the country would hold off on any plans to try and sell the stockpile until it had resolved issues surrounding inventory management and control.

While selling the rosewood remains an option in the future, the latest decision aligns Madagascar’s position more closely with that of CITES: that the country needs to do more to crack down on the illegal logging and timber trade before a relaxation or lifting of the ban is even considered.

“The first thing they need to address is the enforcement issue. The potential conversation on exports and sustainable management will come after that,” said Isabel Camarena, an official with the CITES Secretariat who tracked the discussions.

In a July interview Alexandre Georget, Madagascar’s environment minister, told Mongabay that they would not allow any exports of rosewood. In the past, the country has repeatedly sought permission for a one-time sale of illegal rosewood that lies in government custody, a move that many fear would send the wrong signal to illegal traders and to other countries pushing for similar sales of trafficked commodities.

“WCS commends Madagascar for announcing that they are no longer seeking permission from CITES for an international sale of seized stocks of rosewood,” Janice Weatherley-Singh, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society-EU, said in a statement. “Allowing even just a one-off international sale of such a highly prized wood would provide an opportunity for increased illegal trade.”

A 2009 coup led by the current president, Andry Rajoelina, fueled unprecedented destruction of Madagascar’s forests and rosewood extraction. The 2013 CITES ban led to a government roundup of illegally harvested rosewood. To date, however, Madagascar still doesn’t have a clear idea of how much illegal rosewood exists in the country, because some stocks have been declared by traffickers but aren’t in government custody, while others have been stashed away by timber traders.

Without this baseline, the CITES committee is unwilling to consider any move to dispose of it. Madagascar said domestic use would be prioritized rather than allowing the wood to enter the global market, ending up largely in China.

Wood from species in two genera found in Madagascar, Dalbergia (rosewood and palisander) and Diospyros (ebony), is considered precious timber. It’s coveted for its rich hues and fragrance and used in the production of fine furniture and musical instruments.

During the 2013 CITES summit, in Bangkok, rosewood, ebony and palisander from Madagascar were placed in Appendix II of the convention. That means that while trade isn’t banned, it’s subject to strict regulation. An embargo was placed on trade in the precious timber, and an action plan approved to create an inventory of stockpiles and assess standing trees.

Since then, CITES has extended the embargo and rejected iterations of the “Stockpile Verification Mechanism and Business Plan” presented by the Malagasy government for auditing and ultimately legally exporting the stock of precious wood in its custody.

The justification offered by the government was that selling the confiscated timber would help it achieve “stock zero” and make it easier to track any new logging. But without accurate and reliable information about the volume of confiscated timber, there’s no knowing how much would have to be sold off to arrive at “stock zero.” There’s the added concern that timber traffickers could freely remove and sell logs from the cache that’s not fully under government control.

The Malagasy government has been criticized for trying to take control of the inventory by compensating timber barons who control a substantial portion of the illegal stocks.

At the CITES summit in Geneva, it was decided that Madagascar would account for all the stocks, not only a third of them as was previously required , including the undeclared and hidden ones, according to Susanne Breitkopf, forest policy manager at the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Environmental Investigations Agency, which participated as an observer at the meeting. Madagascar also committed to enforce the law and prosecute offenders at all levels.

The shift in the government’s stance is being hailed by some, while others are more cautious in their optimism.

“They did not present a new business plan here, also nothing about compensating traffickers. Per CoP decision they should submit a new use plan (not business plan), to the next Standing Committee, which is based on transparency and independent oversight mechanism,” Breitkopf said.

However, government officials did not categorically rule out seeking permission for a future sale of the stockpile. “We continue working on the business plan taking account on these new recommendations,” Herizo Rakotovololonalimanana, the director-general of environment and forests and one of Madagascar’s delegates at CoP18, said in an email to Mongabay.

Ranaivomanana, in his speech at the CITES meeting, noted that the decision on what to do would come after the government had secured all the stocks, the risks of illegal exploitation were fully understood, and it was able to deal with offenders more effectively.

Camarena from the CITES Secretariat said the international community was still worried that once Madagascar did that, they might seek to sell the rosewood. “The use plan has not been approved, only the part about making the inventory,” she said. “The idea of the inventory management was well received but nobody wanted anything to do with sale.”

The conference did amend the status of small finished items such as musical instruments, parts and accessories, exempting them from requiring CITES permits to cross borders. Madagascar’s plan to use some of the stock domestically to produce handicrafts could potentially benefit from this.

However, it would only be part of the solution to the problem of what to do with the seized wood. “The needs for local handcrafts will be very small compared to the total size of the current stockpile, so this to me does not solve much of the situation and it does not mean that the stock is safe,” said Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, the country director for WWF Madagascar, adding that “there has been no information shared on the status of the inventory so I suppose it is still at the same status as it was last year.”

At the discussion, parties felt no progress could be made by pushing Madagascar into a corner and the need was to support them, Camarena said, a theme emphasized in the decisions taken during the meeting.

“The challenge is still huge and Madagascar cannot solve the rosewood trafficking crisis in isolation,” Weatherley-Singh of WCS said. “The international trade suspension needs to be kept in place. Other countries also need to be ready to refuse imports of illegal stocks and provide financial support.”

Banner Image: A file photo by Rhett A. Butler of rosewood being transported in Maroantsetra in northwest Madagascar

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

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