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Stolen Forests: The West African Precious Woods Crisis

By Lisa Handy, EIA Director of Forest Campaigns

The dry forests of West Africa – fragile transition ecosystems located between the Northern Sahelian desert and the South Central African tropical forests – are home to valuable rosewood species that play a key role in the cultures and economies of the local people. One of these tree species, Pterocarpus erinaceus (also known as “kosso,” “vene,” or “pao de sangre”), has been increasingly extracted, and smuggled out of West African countries to meet the growing demand from Asian markets. If current trends continue, in just a few years the species could be facing commercial extinction.

Only six years ago, rosewood exports from the region were negligible. Today, West Africa is the largest supplier of rosewood to China, representing 84 percent of the volume of rosewood imports specifically recorded by the country (under the category “hongmu”). This is driving boom and bust cycles across the region: as one country’s supply is depleted, traders move on to the next target. In 2015, the declared value of the rosewood trade from West Africa surpassed a quarter of a billion dollars.

There are several reasons that this situation is particularly alarming. First, the rapacious harvest of the African rosewood species is damaging the fragile savannah ecosystem and accelerating desertification. Second, the particular loss of Pterocarpus erinaceus, valued in handicrafts and musical instruments, and originally found in every member state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the exception of Cape Verde, directly imperils livelihoods in local communities, Third, opportunistic traders have put in place a variety of smuggling channels at the national as well as regional levels, in order to meet the skyrocketing “no-questions-asked” demand from China and Vietnam. The surge in illegal activities (at the point of harvest, transport, and/or export) and the emergence of these smuggling networks directly threatens West Africa’s regional forest governance and undermines the efforts undertaken by the countries of the region to find a balance between conservation and development. Last but not least, several sources have made the connection between the illegal rosewood trade and support for rebel groups, especially in the Senegalese Casamance and in Cote d’Ivoire.

West African states have begun to fight back in an attempt to avoid what might be a truly socio-environmental crisis. Most of the countries in the region have adopted and implemented harvest, trade or log export bans. Regional cooperation to combat against illegal logging and timber smuggling has led to world-record seizures of rosewood. Unfortunately, these efforts have not proven sufficient to deter the theft and stop the massive rosewood exodus.

International environmental agreements can provide an important additional avenue to tackle the transboundary nature of this illicit trade, as a complement to efforts currently underway at the national and regional level. Senegal listed Pterocarpus erinaceus on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) earlier this year, but given the unsustainable and illegal harvesting across the region, eight other range States have now joined the Senegalese initiative and co-sponsored an uplisting proposal from Appendix III to Appendix II. This uplisting would increase the level of international regulation and control applying to the trade, and would be a critical step toward more legality, sustainability, and transparency.

Hopes are high that this imperiled species will win the protections it so desperately needs at the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Johannesburg next week.

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