Hong Kong Customs displays 82.5kg of rhino horns from South Africa and destined for Malaysia. Photo: ISD

Singapore releases 30,000 logs of illegal Malagasy rosewood

Judge neglects Singapore’s treaty obligations under CITES

A judge in Singapore has dismissed the case against an importer, Mr. Wong Wee Keong and his company Kong Hoo, for bringing in nearly 30,000 logs of allegedly illegal Malagasy rosewood, valued at $50 million USD. Madagascar has maintained a zero export quota for Malagasy rosewood continuously since August 2013, and Madagascar’s president has requested that all transit and destination countries support this ban. Madagascar’s populations of rosewood and ebony have been protected under Appendix II of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, since their listing in March 2013.  All exports of CITES Appendix II-listed species must be accompanied by valid export permits. However, no legal export permits have yet been authorized  by the CITES Secretariat.  The judge’s action, ignoring the clearly illegal nature of the rosewood logs, sends a dangerous signal that Singapore is opening its borders to traffickers of illicit timber and is unwilling to enforce its obligations under CITES.

CITES parties unanimously approved Madagascar’s request to list its populations of rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) and ebony (Diospyros spp.) on CITES Appendix II in March 2013. Madagascar agreed to an Action Plan under which the country is required to maintain a zero export quota of rosewood until completion of Action Plan has been approved by the CITES Secretariat. For the past two years, the CITES Secretariat has rejected Madagascar’s requests to open the trade, noting the country’s lack of progress in implementing the requirements of the Action Plan, including a the completion of a comprehensive assessment and securitization of rosewood and ebony stockpiles – estimated to include over 300,000 logs – and a demonstrated ability to enforce against the illegal trade. Madagascar has continually extended its zero export quota, which is currently valid through January 15, 2016.

According to the Singapore daily The Straits Times, Madagascar’s Minister of the Environment, had declared in January 2015 that the permits for this shipment of 30,000 Malagasy rosewood logs were legal, despite the zero export quota that his country has maintained for the past two years. Madagascar’s current Minister of the Environment, Ralava Beboarimisa, took office on January 27, 2015. Because two Ministers of the Environment held office in January 2015, it is unclear whether the permits in this case in Singapore were declared legal by the new Minister or by his predecessor. As documented in EIA’s 2014 report, The Ongoing Illegal Logging Crisis in Madagascar, the former Minister of the Environment, Anthelme Ramparany, was widely reported to have close personal ties to rosewood traffickers, having previously organized a 2012 meeting of timber traders which lobbied for the legalization of the trade, and having co-founded a new political party together with a well-known rosewood trader-turned-parliamentarian.

The new Minister, Ralava Beboarimisa, has made an effort to demonstrate that Madagascar is finally getting serious in its crack-down on the illegal rosewood trade. Minister Beboarimisa must now make good on these commitments and clarify to Singapore that these permits are, in fact, illegal.

The Singaporean judge claims that the wood never technically entered the country, so no permit was needed. Conversely, the judge also claims that a delegation from the Malagasy government, which is known for corruption and links to illegal rosewood traders, visited Singapore to attest to the legality of the shipment. The judge’s logic is flawed on both accounts. The decision of the judge in Singapore runs contrary to CITES transit recommendations listed in Resolution Conf. 9.7 (Rev. CoP15)  which calls on Member States to update their implementing legislation to allow them to seize CITES listed species transited without a valid permit. It also appears to contradict the country’s own Endangered Species Act, chapter 92A, Part II, 5 (1) (a), requiring every scheduled species to have a valid CITES export permit, even when only in transit through Singapore.

Minister Beboarimisa must clarify the illegal nature of the export permits in question, as no CITES export permits have been authorized for Malagasy rosewood.  The CITES Secretariat can support implementation of the treaty and the protections offered by listing populations by confirming that no export permits have yet been issued for Madagascar rosewood. While CITES can be a helpful tool in supporting good governance of endangered species around the world, its efficacy relies on its signatories upholding their obligations and on the Secretariat to ensure compliance.  Two months before the 66th CITES Standing Committee meeting, where the Secretariat must assess Madagascar’s progress in compliance with the Action Plan, the Secretariat cannot remain silent in the face of such blatant disregard for the treaty.

Press reports suggest that Singapore’s Attorney General is considering further actions on this case. This review provides a window of opportunity for Singapore to demonstrate its respect for the laws of Madagascar and its obligations under CITES. Failure of Singapore, Madagascar, and the CITES Secretariat to take action to seize this illegal timber and to investigate the smugglers and false documents involved would set a dangerous precedent which would undermine the CITES convention and efforts within Madagascar to establish control over its natural resources.