In Madagascar it is difficult to verify the provenance of rosewood exports ©PYB/123RF
In Madagascar it is difficult to verify the provenance of rosewood exports ©PYB/123RF

Why rosewood is known as 'blood timber'

29 October 2018

When environmentalists and diplomats call rosewood “blood timber”, they are not referring to its blood-red colour, but to the blood spilt in the illegal global trafficking of this precious, endangered wood.

The deaths are not widely reported, but it is estimated that, in recent years, 150 people have been killed in Thailand in disputes over illegal logging. In Cambodia, at least 20 environmental campaigners have been murdered since 2005. In Senegal, last January, 14 young men died in execution-style killings in a dispute said to be connected to the smuggling of rosewood and teak. Because much rosewood smuggling occurs in countries with languages – Thai, Khmer, Indonesian and Vietnamese – that are not widely understood outside Southeast Asia, the actual death toll is likely to be significantly higher.

When Cambodian environmental activist Ouch Leng, who is campaigning to expose the trade, told Asia Times: “I am aware that I might not live much longer”, he wasn’t being melodramatic, he was stating a fact.

Rosewood has long been used to make musical instruments and furniture but, partly because of its association with the revered Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it has become a status symbol for China’s growing, increasingly affluent middle class. The trade has become exponentially more lucrative, generating $2.6bn in revenue by 2014. Although many countries have laws protecting the biological genus known as Dalbergia, smuggling was causing so much deforestation that the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) agreed, in December 2016, to protect every species of the tree.

Under the new rules, anyone exporting rosewood has to fill in a slew of forms which force them to explain and document where they got the timber from. The extensive, complex regulations have been criticised as draconian by musicians and makers of musical instruments. The blanket ban might sound extreme but as Lisa Handy, director of campaigns at the Environmental Investigation Agency, says: “The enforcement needs to be the same for everybody. When we start to have exemptions and exclusions, we have seen time and time again that people use those to get around the regulations.”

The difficulties in eliminating this trade are vividly illustrated in a recent investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Madagascar. The organisation set up a fake Chinese company, registered in the United Arab Emirates, to ‘buy’ rosewood from a trader in the island state who admitted that 80% of the timber he exports is logged directly from the forest – rather than being sourced from stockpiles.

The timber is then smuggled out from one of the country’s smaller ports or taken out to sea on a small boat to be offloaded onto a larger vessel. The wood is then shipped to a number of ports in the Indian Ocean – Mauritius being the most popular – and, usually without even coming ashore, re-exported to China. Often these shipments are mislabelled as  “high grade vanilla and high service fees” and may include real vanilla, which Madagascar has an abundance of.

Smuggling rosewood is risky – which is why traders normally demand 40% of their fee in advance – but within Madagascar itself, the business is pretty safe. As the trader told the OCCRP: “All you need is one political friend. One call to the president’s office and it is business as usual.”

Such allegations are easy to make and hard to prove but the Madagascan government has consistently tried to win backing for the export of stockpiled rosewood even though, as CITES pointed out, it does not have enough money to take inventory and ensure that these logs have not been freshly felled.

One of the 36 candidates in next month’s presidential election is Andry Rajeolina, who seized power in a coup in 2009 and ran the country until 2014. When he stepped down a UN report noted that a “large unexplained stash of rosewood logs was discovered at the presidential palace”.

The profits from rosewood smuggling have not been shared with Madagascans. Nine out of ten of them live on less than $2 a day, half the children suffer from malnutrition or stunted growth and the food supply is so fragile that people have resorted to hunting lemurs. With no proper regulation of forests, the island’s fragile, unique ecosystem is being destroyed – a trend that also threatens the eco-tourism boom from which many locals earn a living.

What is happening in Madagascar is extreme, but not exceptional. In northern Nigeria, rosewood smuggling is reportedly a source of revenue for Boko Haram. In Uttara Kanada, in southern India, villagers have to physically defend their rosewood trees. In Belize, 90% of one species of rosewood has been lost in the past few years. Myanmar’s government is so worried about its stocks of rosewood it has banned exports altogether.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to be dampening demand in China. Auction prices for Ming dynasty rosewood furniture are soaring and so is the local cost of raw rosewood – from $3,220 a ton in 2012 to $22,540 a ton last year. If anything, the CITE rules have driven up the price in China, increasing the incentive for smugglers.

Governments could do much more to combat this trade – investing in effective law enforcement would be a start. China could also ban imports of timber that doesn’t meet CITES standards (as the European Union and the US have done.)

Yet the long-term solution, says Kenneth E. Wallen, an assistant professor of natural resources at the University of Arkansas, may be to use social influencers as consumer advocates. If nobody’s buying rosewood furniture, who would want to smuggle it?

That sounds simplistic but, as Wallen says, “In Indonesia and Malaysia, Muslim clerics have declared fatwas against wildlife poaching. In doing so, they make it easier to stigmatise poaching and illegal purchasing.”

The question is: will that happen fast enough? If nothing significant changes, a dozen species of rosewood could become extinct in our lifetime.

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