Trader smuggled 50 million dollars’ worth of rosewood into Singapore, expects jail
On March 30, a court in Singapore convicted businessman Mr. Wong Wee Keong and his company for smuggling nearly 30,000 illegal Malagasy rosewood logs, worth $50 million U.S. dollars, into the country. The wood, which was shipped from Madagascar despite an export ban, was seized by the Singaporean authorities in March 2014, and the case had since taken several turns, including two acquittals and two appeals.
Responding to the conviction, EIA Executive Director Alexander von Bismarck said, “This decision confirms a fundamental change in the global timber trade. More and more international agreements and laws in consuming countries are sending a clear message to illegal traffickers across the globe: business models based on stolen wood will not be successful.”
According to a March 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity, illegal logging is the world’s third largest global crime after counterfeiting and drug trafficking, generating estimated criminal proceeds between $52 billion and $157 billion U.S. dollars a year.
Due to its isolated geography, Madagascar harbors extraordinary biodiversity. Approximately 90 percent of all plant and animal species found on the island are endemic, including its emblematic lemurs. Over the past fifty years, the country has lost over 40 percent of its forest cover. The traffic in Malagasy precious woods has gathered international attention over the past ten years, including one of the earliest enforcement actions under the U.S. Lacey Act plant amendments, resulting in a criminal enforcement agreement with Gibson Guitars for importing illegal timber from Madagascar.
Since 2013 Madagascar, supported by the international community, has formally committed to stop the rosewood traffic. Malagasy rosewoods (Dalbergia spp.) and ebonies (Diospyros spp.) have been protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 2013 and an embargo on all timber exports from Madagascar has been in place since 2010. Under the CITES agreement, Madagascar in 2013 agreed to establish a dedicated “Action Plan” to protect its precious trees from extinction and to stop the uncontrolled illegal destruction of its forests. The plan includes measures such as the assessment of the status of current standing tree populations, the inventory of the existing stockpiles, and decisive crack down on illegal timber barons who continue to break the law.
Unfortunately, since the plan was agreed to in 2013, Madagascar has continuously failed to implement it. There is strong evidence that illegal logging and export of precious woods continues on the island, primarily fueled by the substantial demand in China for high end furniture. No timber baron to date has been sentenced and jailed in Madagascar. In contrast, environmental activists have been the targets of the justice system, suffering harassment and incarceration. The leader of the Coalition Lampogno, Clovis Razafimalala, has been imprisoned without cause since September 20, 2016 and is still awaiting trial.
Singapore’s seizure of the nearly 30,000 illegal Malagasy rosewood logs, approximately 3,235 tons, according to the prosecutor, is the largest seizure of CITES-listed species in the history of rosewood smuggling, and amounts to more than half the global amount of rosewood seized in the last decade.
The court will decide what penalties will be imposed for the illegal importation of CITES protected species at a hearing in the next few months. The prosecution is seeking at least 18 months in jail for Mr. Keong and $500,000 U.S. dollars in fines from both Mr. Keong and his company. In a separate hearing, the court will decide who has the right to recover the seized logs.
“We now need to watch closely what will happen to these logs. It is imperative that local communities who suffer from illegal exploitation be compensated, and the timber not be allowed back into illegal rosewood trade to China,” von Bismarck continued.