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In South Africa, a chance to stop the illegal forest plunder for precious woods

183 countries are meeting in Johannesburg next week to save the world’s plants and animals from extinction. This year they have an historic chance to protect some of the world’s most precious trees – and thwart the criminal gangs responsible for their destruction.

JOHANNESBURG – As the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) begins in South Africa, EIA has released new analysis revealing the nature and scale of a highly destructive trade in precious woods from Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

This trade is exploding to feed the soaring demand of a growing Chinese middle-class for Chinese luxury furniture. The rosewood1 trade increased more than 65 times in value since 2005 and is worth billions of dollars today.

If sustainably managed, this trade could be a godsend for struggling economies. However, in practice, source countries are witnessing the reckless looting of their forests by criminal groups who, driven by sky-high profits, will do whatever it takes to get their hands on the precious trees.

“The rosewood crisis is truly global: 88 countries across five continents have been affected since 2000 – suffering a repeated boom and bust cycle from country to country that threatens to entirely wipe out these populations,” said Lisa Handy, EIA Director of Forest Campaigns.

Soaring Chinese demand has caused prices to explode and pulls producer countries into cycles of “boom and bust”: when a new source for rosewood is discovered, loggers and smugglers are rushing in, causing reckless over-exploitation, cross-border smuggling, and violent attacks on law enforcement officers. When trees become scarce in one place, or authorities strengthen controls, the shady networks quickly move to another country and the deadly cycle of corruption, violence, and forest destruction starts anew. As EIA’s analysis shows, to meet the “no questions asked” demand in China, traders have expanded and diversified their sourcing from the more traditional Mekong region, to the “new frontiers” of West Africa and Central America.

EIA has documented the impacts of the quest for precious woods particularly in Southeast Asia and West Africa, where official logging and export bans have not been able to stop these forest crimes. Illegal timber mafias are often involved in other lucrative criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, and in the Casamance region of Senegal, smuggling of “blood timber” has been fueling armed conflict and rebel activities.

In a move to further confront the problem in West Africa, ten African countries, under the lead of Senegal, have asked the CITES Parties to help them in protecting the “kosso” tree (Pterocarpus erinaceus), by listing it on Appendix II of the Convention. This would allow for only strictly controlled trade in sustainable volumes. Today, kosso timber from Africa accounts for more than 75 percent of rosewood log imports to China by volume.

In addition, due to the explosive and expansive nature of the threat to rosewoods, for the first time in history, a growing group of countries have proposed to list an entire genus, Dalbergia, on Appendix II of the treaty, covering more than 250 species worldwide.

Outside of CITES, most importing countries still lack a legal basis for refusing wood that was harvested or traded in violation of source country laws and regulations. The United States’ Lacey Act, the European Union’s Timber Regulation, and Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act all prohibit the import and trade in illegal timber and set fundamental international standards for timber trade. However, these have limited impact on the illegal trade in rosewood (or “hongmu”) timber species due to the absence of similar legislation or regulations in their primary destination markets, China and Vietnam.

“There is an essential need for China and Vietnam to implement a mandatory regulation that strictly and effectively prohibits the import and trade of illegal timber and wood products,” said Handy.
This state of affairs and the transnational nature of the trade and smuggling networks have driven more Parties to turn to CITES for support. Today, eight of the 33 officially recognized hongmu species are listed on the Appendices of the Convention. The vast majority of the unsustainable and illegal trade in hongmu is not yet regulated by CITES.

Editor’s Notes

1. “Rosewood” is broadly used as a synonym for “hongmu” – meaning “red wood” in Chinese – which refers to the well-identified group of 33 timber richly hued and durable tropical hardwoods species used to produce high-end reproduction furniture, flooring and handicrafts.


Maggie Dewane, EIA Press Officer, [email protected], +1202 483 6621

Susanne Breitkopf, EIA Forest Policy Manager, [email protected], +1202 390 5586