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Fighting Forest Crime: CITES takes action against illegal rosewood trade

At its 69th meeting, the Standing Committee (SC69) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) took important steps to curb the destructive illegal trade in rosewoods from Africa.

The illegal rosewood trade is the world’s most valuable form of wildlife crime. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the total value of seized illegal rosewood between 2005 and 2014 is higher than all seizures related to elephants, big cats, rhinoceros, pangolins, parrots and marine turtles combined. Demand for rosewood is chiefly coming from China and Vietnam, where the logs are processed into luxury furniture. Demand for the precious trees has exploded over the past decade, resulting in unprecedented levels of illegality and even violence in source countries.

Nigeria/China: Unprecedented levels of illegal trade
A two-year investigation by EIA, released shortly before the CITES conference in November 2017, uncovered how over 1.4 million illegal rosewood logs from Nigeria, worth US$300 million, were laundered into China, using thousands of questionable CITES permits. Over US$1 million in bribes were reportedly paid to Nigerian officials in the scheme. Following EIA’s investigation, the Standing Committee decided that no country should accept any CITES permits for rosewood issued by Nigeria unless checked by the CITES Secretariat in Geneva. Nigerian authorities have acknowledged the issue and invited the CITES Secretariat on a technical mission in order to help examine and solve the problems with illegal timber exports. Nigeria is the world’s largest exporter of rosewood today and there is now hope that, with the help of the international community, it can get its trade under control and protect its forests from illegal plunder.

Madagascar: The international community is watching
Madagascar came to the CITES conference with a proposal to lift a ban on exports of rosewoods, ebonies and palisanders in place since 2013. The country wants to sell its vast illegal timber stockpiles, and on top of that pressed for countries such as Singapore or Sri Lanka, who have seized illegal wood from Madagascar, to sell their stocks and share the proceeds with them. This despite the fact that Madagascar has made no significant progress in accounting for its rosewood stocks, and has to this day failed to prosecute high level criminals involved in the trafficking. On the contrary, the government presented a plan that included a multi-million dollar pay-back to traffickers to motivate them to turn in stolen logs. EIA and the Malagasy organization Alliance Voahary Gasy have described in detail the ongoing rosewood crisis and how CITES can help tackle it in a report shared with delegates ahead of the meeting.

The Standing Committee rejected the requests by Madagascar and decided to keep the trade suspension in place. Madagascar first needs to audit and secure at least a third of its stockpiles of logs and submit a detailed use plan for approval by the Committee. Significantly, Madagascar is also urged to locate the estimated millions of logs of so-called “hidden stockpiles” across the island. This is important in order to prevent further large scale laundering of illegal timber. Lastly, the Standing Committee urged Madagascar to finally start prosecuting so-called “high-level offenders”, illegal traffickers in often powerful positions, some of whom have even been elected into public office.

Action needed from China
EIA spokesperson Susanne Breitkopf, who attended the meeting in Geneva welcomed the decisions on Nigeria and Madagascar: “The international community has shown its willingness to help fight devastating global forest crime and bring its perpetrators to justice at this meeting. However, we need more of the key consumer nations, in particular China, to join the fight and effectively prohibit the imports of illegally harvested timber.”

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