- Since CITES banned the global trade of Malagasy rosewood in 2013, the country has faced a dilemma: what to do with the illegally harvested timber in government custody?
- This month Madagascar proposed using seized rosewood, which it claims is secure, domestically, effectively removing it from CITES oversight.
- Though the plan concerns a small fraction of the stockpile, it could set a dangerous precedent, opening the door for the remaining timber to be unlawfully funneled into the global market and drive illegal logging, anti-trafficking campaigners said.
- The proposal came up for discussion at the CITES standing committee meeting this March, but CITES parties are expected to reach a decision at the next summit in November.
Madagascar is the custodian of some of the world’s most valuable contraband: seized rosewood worth millions of dollars on the international market.
Since 2013, global trade in Malagasy rosewood has been banned under CITES, the international convention on the wildlife trade. Now, the African nation is proposing to use part of the seized timber domestically.
Though the plan concerns less than 2% of the stockpile, if allowed, the decision could have far-reaching consequences for the illicit trade in the hardwood, conservationists say, highlighting the potential for abuse.
It could set a dangerous precedent, opening the door for the remaining timber to be unlawfully funneled into the global market and drive illegal logging, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Transparency International (TI) said in a joint release.
Madagascar says it will use the wood to build infrastructure and produce handicrafts to be sold in-country and for limited export of finished items, effectively removing it from CITES oversight.
“CITES regulates international trade. Domestic trade in timber harvested in the same country is normally an internal business,” David Whitbourn, a spokesperson for the CITES secretariat, told Mongabay in an email.
The CITES standing committee, with representatives from the six key geographical regions, met in Lyon, France, this March but did not draft a recommendation regarding Madagascar’s proposal. A decision is expected at the next conference of parties (COP19) in November, when all 184 CITES parties meet.
At the 16th COP, the parties placed Malagasy rosewood and ebony species (Dalbergia and Diospyros spp.) in Appendix II, subjecting their international trade to regulations. They suspended global trade in the species until Madagascar meets certain conditions to safeguard these tree species.
Despite being a biodiversity hotspot with rich tropical forests, the island nation is one of the poorest in the world. It is also losing this natural wealth at an alarming pace. The unlawful timber trade, fueled by international commercial demand, is stripping forests of centuries-old hardwoods. Rosewood is especially coveted in countries like China, its largest market. It is mostly used in the manufacture of high-end furniture and musical instruments.
The CITES moratorium sought to counter an illegal logging boom triggered by the 2009 coup, which brought Andry Rajoelina to power for the first time. Rajoelina returned as president in 2019 in a democratically held election, but allegations that he relied on the illegal rosewood trade to gain influential backers and boost his electoral fortunes continue to dog him.
Responding to an international outcry, the Malagasy government started confiscating illegally harvested timber in 2011. At COP16, two years later, Madagascar agreed to an action plan to deal with the confiscated wood. It included assessing standing populations, inventorying seized stockpiles, and taking measures to curb illegal logging and export.
But even today, less than 2% of the estimated stockpile is under the government’s control. This is the part Madagascar intends to use. Of the remainder, traffickers declared about 10% of the logs but never turned them over to the government. According to an EIA analysis, the vast majority (88%) of the wood is still allegedly in the hands of timber barons and is “undeclared” or hidden.
Anti-trafficking campaigners say Madagascar had time and money to secure the stockpiles and install a transparent system to dispose of the wood. However, there is a lack of political will to comply with CITES requirements, multiple experts suggested, especially with a presidential election looming next year.
“We go from meeting to meeting and say, what has Madagascar done in the last couple of years and every time we look back and say, oh, nothing has really happened,” said Susanne Breitkopf, a deputy director at the EIA.
Madagascar has always been keen on selling the stocks in the international market. The country has been working on a business plan with the help of the World Bank that would allow a one-off sale. However, because Madagascar failed to implement the action plan fully, CITES hasn’t lifted the trade embargo and has blocked plans to sell the seized wood on the global market.
In the past, Malagasy government representatives have argued that selling portions of the stockpile would allow them to raise funds to finance further implementation of the action plan. It is unclear if domestic sales will contribute to the government’s revenues.
The environment ministry proposes to use the timber to renovate historical sites, in the construction of museums and schools and to produce artisanal goods. Exports of finished products of less than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) would be allowed without CITES documentation, according to the plan.
Madagascar has already piloted the approach by using rosewood to rebuild the queen’s palace in the capital Antananarivo. But an investigation by the EIA and TI found that the process of securing the wood was not transparent and marred with irregularities. “Madagascar is using this particular case to showcase domestic use,” Breitkopf said, “when you look at it. Unfortunately, it’s not so much a showcase of a great solution; rather, it is business as usual.”
Conservationists see this new strategy as a way to dodge CITES regulations. They warn that permitting domestic use could allow tainted rosewood not in government control to enter the markets and encourage more illegal harvesting. Logged timber is hard to trace back to the trees or even specific species or sites. Without a proper system for tracking and tracing which logs are leaving the stockpiles, the new plan will allow multiple dealers to access the stocks.
“As we have seen, even the controlled stockpiles are not under control,” Breitkopf said. The 2013 trade ban has been difficult to enforce, with illegal shipments continuing to leave the country. Some of the wood reportedly originates from government stockpiles and is replaced with newly harvested logs.
There are also fears that if Madagascar gets approval, it could seek the same solution for the remaining stockpiles by declaring its intention to use the wood domestically.
“EIA and TI wish to highlight the fact that, on the basis of the countless historic precedents reported in Madagascar, the more use is authorized of one type of stockpile, the more likely laundering efforts will increase for the other types,” a report from the two watchdogs said.
The road ahead for the country will not be easy if the CITES standing committee deliberations are any indicator. “In Lyon, some countries expressed concern about the status of the stockpiled timber and suggested an additional audit before allowing any domestic trade,” Whitbourn at the CITES secretariat said.
Madagascar’s ministry of environment did not respond to requests for comment.
Banner image: Rosewood stacked for river transport in Madagascar, 2010. Image by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).