Global Wildlife Treaty Put to Test by Growing Organized Forest Crime
Washington, D.C. – At an international meeting in early October, the members of the Standing Committee (SC) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) will make critical decisions impacting the fight against organized criminal networks and their growing hold on the world’s forest resources. In two new reports, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) exposes what is at stake and underscores the key decisions that the CITES Parties must make: reject an extortion scheme for rosewood traffickers in Madagascar and agree to stop the massive ongoing criminal timber trade in violation of the Convention in Nigeria.
Illegal logging and related trade ranks as the world’s fourth largest transnational crime, generating criminal proceeds estimated between 52-157 billion US dollars per year. Illegal rosewood trade is by far the world’s largest wildlife crime by value, comprising 35 percent of all wildlife seizures between 2005 and 2014.
From October 1 to 5, 2018, CITES Parties will meet in Sochi (Russian Federation) at the 70th meeting of the SC, where EIA will be closely following two emblematic cases: Madagascar and Nigeria.
Extortion in Madagascar
An estimated 2 million rosewood and ebony logs have accumulated in Madagascar since exports of precious woods were banned in 2010 – likely the largest and most valuable timber stockpile in the world. At the Sochi meeting, in order to begin the disposal process, Madagascar will seek approval from CITES to pay off traffickers in order to get access to and control over the logs they illegally “own.” In the joint report Paying Off Traffickers: A Costly and Dangerous Precedent, the Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG), the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Transparency International (TI) reveal that the move is driven by fear of violent reprisals by timber mafia bosses who are threatening social unrest if the government were to seize the logs without compensation. All of this is occurring against the backdrop of tense upcoming presidential elections in 2018 and parliamentary elections in 2019.
"Transparency International has serious concerns over the corruption risk posed by the trade in Malagasy rosewood,” said Casey Kelso, who leads TI’s collaboration with the investigative journalists at OCCRP. “Will the CITES Standing Committee endorse impunity for illegal acts and give rewards for criminal efforts?”
Among the beneficiaries of the pay-off would be Mr. Roger Thunam, a notorious timber baron exposed by EIA undercover investigators almost ten years ago for selling illegal wood from the Masoala National Park. Under the plan proposed by Madagascar, Mr. Thunam would be eligible for at least half a million US dollars in “indemnification” payments for the authorities to access his illegal stockpile.
A recent investigation led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), with support from TI and AVG, indicates that the criminal rosewood trafficking networks are still operating with impunity in Madagascar. An influential trader told undercover investigators that most of the Asian buyers currently obtaining Malagasy rosewood, despite the embargo, are protected by political allies in high places, including the office of the President.
EIA Executive Director, Alexander von Bismarck, who has personally investigated illegal logging in Madagascar, said: “We fear that CITES is considering a partnership with the very organized crime bosses it should be policing. Accepting Madagascar’s proposal would send a message of encouragement to organized crime and set a dangerous precedent for other countries who have been seizing stolen timber.” EIA has witnessed the devastating consequences of ill-conceived timber stockpile sales in other countries, including recently in Guinea-Bissau.
Blackmail and Bribes in Nigeria
The CITES Secretariat conducted an investigation into Nigeria rosewood trade in 2018. The results are damning and corroborate findings released by EIA in the 2017 The Rosewood Racket report. The report exposed that Amina J. Mohammed, then the Nigerian Minister of Environment and currently Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, signed about 3,000 CITES certificates – just days before leaving office – that traffickers used to launder 1.4 million illegal logs into China. Traffickers also mentioned that the bribes paid to Nigerian senior officials were the single triggering factor for the issuance of several thousand CITES certificates.
The 2018 investigation by CITES found “systemic public sector corruption” and lamented the “high degree of involvement of organized criminal groups and networks” in the timber sector, while scientific data on tree populations is absent and no credible legal verification mechanism for exported timber exists. The report admonishes that in these conditions, the CITES licensing process is a mere “paper exercise.”
Strikingly, Nigeria went from being a net timber importer just a few years ago to the world’s largest exporter of rosewood to China. New data released by EIA in The Racket Continues shows that since the “kosso” tree (Pterocarpus erinaceus) was added to Appendix II of CITES in January 2017 – which should ensure better protection and stronger controls – Nigeria exported an estimated four million trees, worth approximately half a billion US dollars, in violation of the Convention. Recent information released by Nigeria confirms this order of magnitude, with on average 37 containers of P. erinaceus exported from the country daily between January and August 2018. This likely represents one of the largest violations of the Convention in history.
Alerted by EIA’s evidence, the CITES Secretariat now recommends to suspend all trade in kosso from Nigeria and urges the country to take decisive action against corruption and bribery, including protecting officers who are playing by the rules from “undue pressure, obstruction and threats.” In Sochi, the CITES Parties will decide if the Sino-Nigerian organized criminals must shut down their flourishing business or not.
EIA’s von Bismarck said: “Nigeria continues to export hundreds of thousands of trees protected by the Convention without any control. The high-level corruption scheme we have uncovered in Nigeria is driving an endangered species to the brink of commercial extinction, threatening livelihoods and ecosystems in Nigeria, but we are hopeful that CITES Parties will follow the recommendations to stop this criminal trade.”